Green light for Bolinas affordable housing development


An eight-unit affordable housing complex planned for downtown Bolinas has received permits from the Marin County Planning Commission, which issued the approval despite pushback from community members primarily concerned with the project’s size.

In a 5:1 vote, commissioners on Monday approved the coastal permit, use permit and design review requested by Bolinas Community Land Trust. The proposed development at 31 Wharf Road includes two complexes comprised of four 1,350-square-foot, three-bedroom units, four 945-square-foot, two-bedroom units and two commercial spaces at street level. The housing will be dedicated to those who qualify as low and very low-income. Although some public commenters expressed discontent with the design, the majority voiced the strong need for affordable housing in Bolinas.

Chris Desser, the district four commissioner, made the motion for approval. “I think there’s no question of the need for this kind of housing in West Marin,” she said. “So even if from time to time, a place might seem a little larger than everybody would like, I think we are all going to have to make some compromises in order to maintain the quality of life that we love out here. That quality of life depends so much on cultural diversity and economic diversity and allowing the people who work in these communities to actually be able to live in these communities.”

The vacant, 2.3-acre property zoned for multi-family use is a rare find in Bolinas. The land trust acquired it in 2019 from an anonymous donor with the stipulation that the trust apply for the necessary permits to build eight units on a tight timeframe; the land trust, which has an ambitious goal of 50 new units, unveiled drawings for the project later that year.

Opposition sparked when the story poles were erected, leading the trust to gauge public opinion in a poll. A survey that reached 311 primarily Bolinas residents found that 74 percent thought the proposed project would be a beneficial asset for the town. Thirty-nine percent said they didn’t think either the size or scope of the project was appropriate for downtown, or they weren’t sure. Concerns often related to parking and water use. 

Commissioner Don Dickenson, who cast the dissenting vote on Monday, agreed that the property was large enough to support eight units, but said the design was out of character with downtown. “It’s a very suburban-looking building that looks like it’s appropriate in San Anselmo or Novato, but not in funky Bolinas. The scale of the buildings in Bolinas are haphazard, asymmetrical—these buildings are totally symmetrical,” he said.

Although several other commissioners prompted the architect John Lum to explain several design choices, they ultimately favored keeping the project the way he had planned. 

The county received over 150 public comments on the project and many residents testified to the commission on Monday.

Roland Crotts, who owns 22 Wharf Road, said the project would change a two-way access driveway to his property to one way and cause inconveniences. “Excessive height, bulk and mass of the proposed buildings would loom over our property like two huge walls. The design would also eliminate to the east our view of the Bolinas Ridge and a considerable portion of downtown,” he said. 

Resident Jennie Pfeifer proposed reducing the scale, turning two of the three-bedroom and two of the two-bedroom apartments into one-bedroom units.

“I am here today to ask that this plan be rejected in its present form,” Ms. Pfeifer said. “We as a community [need] time to work creatively with all of our town agencies to use what we have learned in the past year of pandemic, low rainfall and resulting fire emergency to plan a more sustainable project, allowing us to live in a safer way with healthy distance, plenty of outdoor access and to be vigilant regarding water, sewer, traffic circulation, safe evacuation routes, carbon sequestration and soil permeability.”

County planning staff categorized the complaints into four areas: parking and traffic circulation, demand on local utilities, the mass and bulk of the project, and project-generated stormwater runoff and potential effects on the Bolinas Lagoon. 

Addressing some of those concerns, staffers wrote in their report to the commission that the zoning allowed a maximum of eight units for the site. (Under California’s Density Bonus Law, however, the restriction of the units for low and very-low income allows for up to 12 units.)

In order to meet parking thresholds required by the county’s Department of Public Works, the land trust will build 16 underground parking spaces and retain four on the street. 

Regarding water use, the county is looking to the Bolinas Community Public Utility District, which has indicated its support. 

The project was found to be consistent with the Marin Countywide Plan’s water quality policies, not resulting in substantial soil erosion or discharge of sediments or pollutants into surface runoff.

Many speakers described the need for the project as dire.

“I cannot stress enough how much anxiety and mental health issues that the affordable housing problems have caused for me in the last 10 years,” said Tahlia Amanson, a high school student from Bolinas.

Leila Monroe, who owns Smiley’s and has served on the board of the land trust, said that although there would be real impacts—shade cast on her new outdoor patio and lost business during construction—she supported the project. 

“I have experienced the impossibility of running a business if we do not have staff able to work,” Ms. Monroe said. “I have some staff who live in their cars, one staff who commutes from Benicia—and these are individuals who have a lifelong connection with Bolinas, who come from the East Bay, for example, because they grew up in Bolinas and are not able to live out here.”

Kim Bender, a resident who was involved in building the Bolinas firehouse and clinic, likened the debate around that project to the current one. “People in Bolinas often oppose any new development, which has resulted in the preservation of character of the town,” she said. “Like the B.C.L.T. project in front of you, the firehouse and medical clinic fulfilled a dire need of the community.”

An appeal period for the project ends next Monday.