Seadrift home, 
rejected by supes, sets new standard

David Briggs
The proposed construction of a 2,900-square foot home in West Marin’s only gated community prompted county supervisors this week to reverse a decades-long practice of granting exemptions to maximum-height regulations for the flood-prone coastal zone.
01/16/2014

Following two appeals, the Board of Supervisors issued a final decision Tuesday to reject the construction of a new home in Stinson Beach that would have been 3.32 feet over the county’s maximum height limits for homes in the coastal zone.

After four months of debate over some 30-odd extra inches, the supervisors argued that their vote established an important precedent to slow the construction of massive homes in the exclusive Seadrift subdivision, West Marin’s only gated community. 

As Seadrift has evolved from a ramshackle collection of summer cottages into one of the region’s most expensive real estate markets, with views of the ocean and the western slopes of Mount Tamalpais, the vote marks the first time supervisors have interceded in the rush to construct on the subdivision’s beachfront, as they weighed issues of imposing development, property rights and the character of the neighborhood. 

“We are going to have to face an ever-increasing character change along our coastal areas to respond to the heightened impact of sea-level rise and storm surges,” said District 4 Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who also occupies a seat on the California Coastal Commission. “We can use this decision to set a tone for all of the houses in Seadrift, many of them more imposing than this one is purported to be.”

Kenneth and Erin Werner purchased the lot under consideration, at 174 Seadrift Road, in 2012. Mr. Werner, the senior managing director at the San Francisco investment bank Merriman Capital, had previously built a home near the western end of the Seadrift spit, which the couple sold for approximately $5.2 million more than the purchase price. For their second project, they contacted Steve Wisenbaker, a Corte Madera-based architect who had built their previous home. 

In February of last year, Mr. Wisenbaker applied for a permit to begin construction. The existing house, built in 1960, would be demolished and replaced with a four-bedroom home more than twice its size—2,935 square feet—plus a detached garage and guest house. The home will be wood-framed and painted a color like wet sand; the roof will be hot asphalt with beige-colored gravel. The yards will feature concrete patios, a plunge pool and an 18-foot fireplace.

Mr. Wisenbaker’s application wrestled with regulations imposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the early 1980’s (revised in the mid-1990’s and again in 2009) stipulating that within a special flood hazard zone, the lowest horizontal beams—essentially, the floor—of any structure could not begin lower than 22 feet.

Since the county had last updated its zoning standards for Seadrift in 1982 after approval of the Local Coastal Program—a year before the FEMA regulations were established—county planners followed a de facto policy of approving deviations for FEMA houses. For three decades, planners were forced to defer to federal law and approve a higher maximum floor height than the county’s outdated regulations allowed, or they would risk losing insurance money from FEMA in the event of a flood. In every case until the Werners, they had approved a variation in maximum height to make up for the difference. Indeed, in 2007 the county had approved a variance of 3.36 feet for the Werners’ last home. 

The Board of Supervisors attempted to institutionalize this unwritten policy with an amendment to the Local Coastal Plan adopted last July to allow for a higher maximum height in FEMA flood zones, by calculating the height as 15 feet from the maximum floor height, rather than imposing an absolute height. (That amendment is still awaiting approval by the California Coastal Commission.) 

The Seadrift Association, a homeowners’ group, had already similarly altered its rules. In response to the FEMA changes, “the Seadrift Association, and the Marin County Planning Department, have allowed the maximum roof height limit of the oceanfront homes in Seadrift to increase,” said Peter Sandmann, the group’s general counsel. “Hundreds of such residences within Seadrift have been constructed, with county approval, over the years.”

The new guideline was cited when neighbors criticized the plans before the association’s architectural review committee and in an appeal before its board of directors. In their decision, the directors said these challenges were “the inevitable consequences of having to comply with the FEMA height requirements.”

With the precedent seemingly firmly established, from the local homeowners’ association all the way up to county supervisors, Mr. Wisenbaker’s application looked like it would sail to approval. His designs took an innovative approach to the rule: rather than building a home elevated in its entirety, he split the house into two connected structures. The living room, dining room and kitchen would be in the flood zone and raised to the minimum height; the bedrooms, outside the zone, would be a half-level lower. 

“From the beginning we attempted to address issues that Seadrift faces with regards to new construction especially bulk and mass,” Mr. Werner told the Light. After marrying a West Marin native and living in the area for over a decade, Mr. Werner said his primary concern was “maintaining the beauty and character of Stinson Beach.” He added that he would respect the supervisors’ decision and move forward with the plans as they had been approved.

The Community Development Agency initially seemed warm to the Mr. Wisenbaker’s plans. The 22-page C.D.A. staff report almost glows with praise, particularly for the idea of splitting the house, which previously had not been tried in Seadrift. It “allows for most of the residence to maintain a lower profile,” staff wrote. They initially recommended approving a variance and fended off potential arguments in opposition to the height. 

“Although one portion of the new residence would be higher than the immediately adjacent existing residences that were developed prior to the adoption of current FEMA standards, it would nevertheless be comparable and compatible to other more recently approved residences,” staff continued. “Because of special circumstances…, the strict application of the zoning ordinance deprives such property of privileges enjoyed by other property owners in the vicinity and under identical zoning districts.”

Agency planner Curtis Havel, however, decided to follow the law more strictly, and at a September hearing approved the permit on the condition that the house be reduced in height by two feet. Mr. Havel acknowledged the past approved development but added that those variances were “not an entitlement.” “In fact, these examples may reflect a gradual change to the community character that may not be appropriate,” he said, according to those in attendance.

The decision marked a shift in the entire department’s attitude. The C.D.A. has continued to challenge development, in November asking another Stinson Beach homeowner at 350 Calle del Mar to drop the height of her proposed house by two feet. And the recommendations presented to the Planning Commission when the Werners appealed were a complete turn from the staff’s initial report. “The proposed Living Spaces Building would be incompatible with the prevailing community character because it is significantly taller than either of the immediately adjacent residences … and is a more visually bulky design as viewed from the beach, the adjacent residences and the street,” staff wrote.

The Planning Commission upheld the Mr. Havel’s modifications to the proposed height and even went beyond his plans in deciding to eliminate a barbeque deck 10 feet above ground in a controversial 4-3 vote.

Before reaching the supervisors on Tuesday, the Werner application drew the opposition of a number of groups. The Stinson Beach Village Association worried that, if approved, the “overbearing” bulk and mass of the house would encourage architects “to design similar structures in the future, further compromising the rural atmosphere of the village.” The Sierra Club also applauded the county’s intervention to make the home more compatible with others in the neighborhood, which are generally smaller than at the west end of the spit. 

“In general, the Sierra Club prefers opportunities for public input and public agency discretion instead of ever-growing laissez faire entitlements masquerading as public process streamlining, a direction that seems to be becoming a frequently used approach by the County of Marin,” said Michele Barni, the chair of the Sierra Club’s local chapter.

Before casting their votes on Tuesday, the supervisors acknowledged the changes in the character of Seadrift. It was no longer a traditional neighborhood, but increasingly a place to spend millions of dollars buying a home to tear it down and build something larger, Supervisor Kinsey said. Last month, the Light reported an average price of $2.42 million for 2013 home sales in Seadrift, with only one home selling for less than $1 million. The buyers included venture capitalists, real estate brokers, lawyers, a Stanford professor and two heiresses.

Supervisor Kinsey proposed a motion to uphold the Planning Commission’s reduction in height but to allow the Werners their barbecue patio if it were reduced in size and a privacy wall were installed. 

“We are sending a message to the Seadrift community,” he said. “We’re all working hard to get the massing of buildings as respectful as it can be while still allowing full enjoyment of the site and external views.”

His motion passed in a 4-1 vote, with Kathrin Sears dissenting in opposition to the barbecue patio.