Bolinas land trust unveils latest gifts

03/27/2019

The three staffers at the helm of the Bolinas Community Land Trust can barely keep up with their success.

At a forum last Saturday, the trust’s board members and employees rolled out the details of the latest acquisitions—two empty lots, one adjacent to Smiley’s Schooner Saloon and the other on the Big Mesa—destined to be the locations of new affordable housing. 

Including the new acquisitions, the trust now manages seven properties, including four that are not yet developed, and operates nine rental units. 

The growth is pushing the organization to expand, and the community to pitch in. “These are huge projects,” Arianne Dar, the trust’s executive director, said to a crowd of nearly 50 gathered in the Bolinas Community Center on Saturday. “They are projects that will change the town, and they are bigger than we want to take on.”

To tackle the upsurge in land, the trust is applying for grants to add to its staff. It is also hoping that a handful of community members will join two volunteer committees to draft plans for the projects. 

Ms. Dar said her vision is to pair staff and board members with up to five community members to collaborate in two committees tasked with working out issues like zoning, water, septic, environmental constraints and design, and with gathering community input.

Developing the newest projects will take two to four years and will help the trust reach a goal of creating 25 units within five years. In order to meet local workforce needs, the trust has a long-term goal of 50 new units.

Saturday’s meeting launched with a presentation from Ms. Dar and John Lum, an architect and Bolinas resident working pro bono for the trust, who showed his initial drawings. Everyone who attended then had the opportunity to take the microphone and ask a question, followed by a general question-and-answer session.

Although in the past some residents have voiced concerns about the trust’s development plans—primarily as they pertain to population density and the town’s water moratorium—Saturday’s forum heard largely voices of support and excitement, though there were some words of caution.

 

Two new properties

Last November, an anonymous donor gifted a 20-acre parcel that has historically belonged to the Tacherra family, bordering the Bolinas firehouse. The gift, Ms. Dar explained on Saturday, came with a series of conditions, including that the trust create eight units. The donor also gave the trust just 18 months to fund and complete the permitting and other pre-development processes, though the donor’s contributions will take care of building costs.

To date, the trust has raised $500,000 and has applied for a $400,000 grant to uphold its end of the bargain.

Creating eight units fed by just one water meter—which is limited by the Bolinas Community Public Utility District to a maximum of 224 gallons per day—is a major challenge, however. Ms. Dar said that six units is more realistic.  

Although the current zoning likely requires the housing be for agricultural workers, Ms. Dar said making the housing available to the entire workforce was her preference. 

“I’m personally hoping that we make this available also for firefighters, emergency workers, BCPUD workers and teachers,” she said.

The Mesa Road lot is under a Williamson Act contract with the county, providing relief from property taxes in exchange for rolling 10-year agreements to keep the land in agriculture. That contract would have to be dissolved in order to expand who could live there. 

State and federal fair housing laws make it hard to earmark housing for any particular group. But Ms. Dar said certain deed restrictions could maximize support for the workforce, such as restrictions for full-time Bolinas residents, which are likely allowable. 

(She clarified after the meeting that this type of deed restriction cannot prioritize long-term residents over newcomers—countering a hope previously expressed by many residents that the group’s housing be allotted to locals only.) 

The acquisition downtown, a gift by the landowner, is no walk in the park, either. Bordering the saloon, the 2.5-acre vacant lot sits on a steep hillside above Wharf Road, where parking and privacy are scarce. There are two zoning designations on the property: residential/agricultural and village commercial residential.

Mr. Lum, who presented his sketched plans for this project, said he wanted the project to reflect the character and the spirit of Bolinas. “We don’t want to be disruptive here, we want to create something that would naturally occur,” he said. 

He recommended a simple, Victorian look with painted wood or shingles, that would blend into the neighboring 1920s-era buildings.

Mr. Lum’s proposal includes a maximum eight units of different sizes, off-street parking and three stories built into the hillside that matched the height of surrounding buildings and were less visible from the street. The street-level story will have to be commercial, given the village core requirements of the county’s updated Local Coastal Program.

Like the Tacherra property, the downtown property only has access to one water meter. Per a suggestion from a resident at the meeting, Ms. Dar said the trust would be interested in any water meters that may become available, such as from blufftop houses that are becoming uninhabitable.

 

Commentary

There remained some concerns from audience members.

“There’s no doubt this is a good thing,” Ralph Camiccia, a longtime community member, said. “But I have some concerns. One of the things I feel is that a lot of great minds in Bolinas put that water moratorium together at a time when there was a really critical problem. I don’t want to see that get violated. It is what has made this community what it is, and it’s why we are all here.”

He also raised concerns about property management by an organization whose responsibilities are growing rapidly. “I’m almost to the feeling where you need to split in two: a management group—a board or an entity that keeps it going—and then a component that does the big vision and funding and stuff. Otherwise I think this board is going to get run-down and you people are going to get really tired and lose your focus.”

His niece, the trust’s managing director Evie Wilhem, said they were looking into hiring a full-time property manager, as well as other positions. She assured Mr. Camiccia that upgrades were on the way, including a paint job for the Gibson House, which he asked about. 

The gas station, which the trust operates on another of its Wharf Road properties, came back online this week after a two-month closure for repairs.  

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni attended the meeting and expressed support. “We all know that workforce affordable housing in the most important thing we can do in West Marin,” he said. “I’m really excited to see the community land trust moving forward on these projects.”

And, despite the estimate that these projects are a few years down the pike, dozens of commenters expressed excitement.

“I’ve lived here for more than 50 years and seen what brings out the worst in people,” Linda Mornell said. “But I have watched you put this thing together and bring out the better in all of us.”

 

If you are interested in serving on a housing committee, contact the trust at info@bolinaslandtrust.org or (415) 868.8880.