Neighbors dash Grady Ranch plan

04/12/2012

Lucasfilm announced Tuesday that it has quashed its bid to build a digital production studio on the old Grady Ranch in Lucas Valley, citing opposition from nearby homeowners and an unending county approval process.

“The level of bitterness and anger expressed by the homeowners in Lucas Valley has convinced us that, even if we were to spend more time and acquire the necessary approvals, we would not be able to maintain a constructive relationship with our neighbors,” the company said in an open letter. “We love working and living in Marin, but the residents of Lucas Valley have fought this project for 25 years, and enough is enough.”

Characterizing Marin as a county “committed to building subdivisions, not business,” Lucasfilm said it plans to construct the studio elsewhere, “in communities that see us as a creative asset, not as an evil empire.”

“We realize our solution to creating open space by placing low-impact commercial facilities on farmland, while permanently preserving over 95 percent of the total acreage, has not been accepted by our neighbors,” it added. “Nor are they or many of the public agencies interested in the [$50 million to $70 million] restoration of the stream. Maybe we’re ahead of our time.”

Lucasfilm’s decision, which follows recent concerns by state and federal agencies over the proposed onsite restoration of Miller Creek, shocked proponents, who saw the project as a source for local jobs and county revenue, as well as foes.

County officials were equally stunned. “It caught us all significantly by surprise,” Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who immediately reached out to the company after hearing of the decision, said. “[George Lucas] has done nothing but give good things to this community. This is a pathetic example of what destructive, self-centered activities by a few can do to a proposal that would benefit many.”

Grady Ranch was to be Lucasfilm’s third development in the valley, preceded by nearby Skywalker and Big Rock Ranches, which house various sound and editing facilities and the George Lucas Education Foundation. Its plans included a 263,701-square-foot main building—significantly smaller in size from the one approved by county planners in a 1996 master plan—underground parking, bridges, a state-of-the art geothermal heating system and the creek restoration.

The project was approved by the planning commission in February, but final approval by the board of supervisors stalled earlier this month after the Lucas Valley Estate Homeowners’ Association appealed the project on the grounds that it would increase traffic and could cause undo ruckus, and after questions about downstream impacts from the proposed creek restoration surfaced.

“We were never flat-out anti-development, so we are not happy that they’ve decided that they are going to go somewhere else,” Liz Dale, a member of the homeowners association, said. “But, though it’s lovely to have benefits and jobs, no one should be asked to suffer, and I think this just may not have been the right site for the development. The name of the game is for everyone to be happy. I thought that was a possibility, but… I’m very respectful of Lucasfilm’s decision to go elsewhere, and I hope they get what they want.”

Since the construction of Skywalker Ranch in 1978, the company said it’s allayed fears of “helicopters landing with celebrities and tour buses coming down Lucas Valley Road.” Traffic has not increased, as some predicted, and the company has donated 95 percent of its land—about 5,000 acres—to the county to be preserved as open space.

But in 2001, after learning that plans to expand its corporate headquarters and video game and visual effects companies would likely be denied, Lucasfilm moved a majority of its employees to San Francisco’s Presidio park. “We’ve had a great partnership with the Presidio Trust and created a low impact facility which offers great benefit to its surrounding community,” the company said.

Lucasfilm had requested that the supervisors delay a final decision on the Grady Ranch project earlier this month, saying it needed more time to review written concerns from the homeowners association submitted only days before the last board meeting. Kinsey said supervisors were prepared to approve the project.

“This is an enormous loss and I’m just trying to get my head around it,” Kinsey said, adding that the creek restoration—which was not required in the master plan—was a great gift that had been unduly scrutinized.

Lucasfilm said it plans to sell the property, “expecting that the land will revert back to its original use for residential housing,” and that it hopes to find a developer with interest in low-income housing. “If everyone feels that housing is less impactful on the land, then we are hoping that people who need it the most will benefit,” it said.

Kinsey doubted the likelihood of that happening. “The land is so valuable that unless [Lucas] wanted to donate it to affordable housing it’s impossible for me to see how that would play out,” he said. “Any future development by nature will be more sprawling on the land, and yet that’s the pattern those homeowners seem to have set out to prevent.”