BCLT plans shrunk, appealed

09/12/2019

The Bolinas Community Land Trust staff’s efforts to permit two projects on the Big Mesa hit roadblocks this summer.  

Applications to develop two of its properties, one on Aspen Road and another on Overlook Drive, came before the county for approval in June. The deputy zoning administrator greenlighted both projects, but placed a new condition on the Aspen remodel project that resulted in its downsizing. A group of Bolinas homeowners appealed the Overlook project directly to the Marin County Planning Commission, which will consider the arguments on Oct. 21. 

Last week, land trust employees and board members discussed the best path forward at a meeting held at the trust’s new offices in the Waterhouse building.

Executive Director Arianne Dar presented adjusted blueprints for the Aspen property, where the organization originally hoped to modify the existing structures to create three separate units: a one-bedroom house for a family, a one-bedroom junior unit, and a detached second unit. Given the response from county staff in June, Ms. Dar said it was now most expedient and cost-effective to scale back the project.

At issue was both a proposed septic system and a property line setback. Staff from the county’s environmental health department determined that the new septic system would at most support a one-bedroom house and an accessory dwelling unit; meanwhile, county planners turned down the trust’s request for a variance to allow the house to remain five feet—as opposed to 10 feet—from the property line.  

As a result, the new plans envision a one-bedroom home reduced in size from the proposed 1,757 square feet, down to the original footprint of less than 1,000 square feet. The change would entail the removal of all the illegally built aspects of the house, which was red tagged when the trust acquired it at a reduced price last year. 

Though the trust hoped to legalize an existing detached second unit on the property, the county approval hinged on tearing it down. The county did permit the trust to build a new second unit, but as part of a second phase and following approval of the new septic system.  

The trust’s board unanimously agreed to proceed with the plan, making way for the group to pursue the remaining permits. Still, several board members voiced dismay about the wastefulness of tearing down the existing illegal additions, as opposed to making the alterations to respect the setback and county codes—an effort that would require upgrades to the windows, foundation, siding and more.  

Ultimately, the board agreed to prioritize housing a family there as soon as possible. The cost difference—likely $300,000—also weighed on the decision.

Evie Wilhelm, the trust’s managing director, voiced her concerns about shrinking the project. “We’ve been planning and talking to the community about being able to house more people, and people have been really looking forward to that,” she told the board. “I agree that we are now in a situation where we have to do what we have to do, but we are going to disappoint a lot of people. We have people pushing against what we are doing, and then we have people just waiting with their hearts in their hands for housing—and this is going to be heartbreaking.”  

The trust had similar hopes to create three units on the undeveloped Overlook property on the Big Mesa. A long-term resident donated the three contiguous lots in 2017, and the trust was able to use a water meter it already owned in its permit application. 

The deputy zoning administrator approved the project in June, but a group of around 40 residents who call themselves MUSSEL, or Mesa United in Support of Solutions for Equitable Land-use, appealed the project to the coastal commission.

The appeal, filed on June 24, cites a series of concerns ranging from traffic impacts to disturbance of sensitive species and coastal scrub habitat to the effect of “multiple high-density projects of the same type in the same neighborhood.” The group pointed out that the project violates the California Coastal Act and the Marin Countywide Plan due to its proximity to a drainage ditch that the commission characterizes as a wetland. 

At her hearing in June, Christine Gimmler, the acting deputy zoning administrator, addressed the main concerns brought by several members of the group—chiefly that the commission had reviewed a supplemental biological analysis the land trust provided and already weighed in that the project’s proximity to the area of concern was compliant. 

In regard to increased density, Ms. Gimmler also emphasized that, based on state law, the county considers accessory dwelling units and junior accessory dwelling units to be within the scope of a single-family home, which the property is zoned for. Ms. Gimmler gave her full support of the project, which she said addressed the village’s pressing need for affordable housing.

Ms. Dar expressed frustration with the permitting process at last week’s meeting. “One of the really difficult things in Bolinas is that so much has been built illegally. The problem for us is that if we have a house that we need to do anything to, we have to legalize the whole thing,” she said. “We are held to higher standards, as a trust.” 

She went on the emphasize just how problematic the issue of illegal building is for the organization. It’s difficult to promote the creation of junior dwelling units, she said, because no one has a septic system that’s permitted even for the number of bedrooms already built. 

“It’s something for our community to really try to understand: it creates a bigger hurdle for us,” she said.