Land trust envisions 50 new units in Bolinas

08/02/2018

Representatives from the Bolinas Community Land Trust detailed their plans to create affordable housing at two properties on the Big Mesa at a meeting held at the community center last Saturday. Though a group of neighbors has vocally opposed the projects in recent months over concerns about increased density and compliance with development rules and the community plan, the land trust’s presentation met a warm reception by the large crowd. The projects are part of a long-term goal of creating 50 new units, a number it believes will stabilize the housing crisis for the foreseeable future and meet local workforce needs.  

The panel included Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, the outreach coordinator for the Community Land Trust of West Marin, Ruth Lopez, and Chris Harrington from the Stinson Beach Affordable Housing Association, who together contextualized the affordable housing projects within countywide initiatives. Land trust board member Steve Matson walked through preliminary drawings for the two Big Mesa projects, one for a property at 430 Aspen Road and the other for three contiguous lots on Overlook Drive, properties the trust acquired last year. 

The plans

The trust purchased the 10,000-square-foot Aspen site for the price of the water meter, $300,000, last fall. Like the vast majority of the Big Mesa, it is zoned for a single-family home. Previous owners expanded the home without permits and were red-tagged, so the trust will bring the house into compliance—and creatively maximize the amount of housing the property can provide while abiding by the mesa’s relatively strict zoning, septic and water limitations.

Ultimately, the trust hopes to rent the main house to one family, but also envisions creating an independent junior accessory dwelling unit inside the house and turning an existing studio in the backyard into a second accessory unit. 

In addition to repairs and remodeling, the trust will have to put in a new septic system designed for three bedrooms—which the trust says is the allowable capacity as determined by the lot’s soil type and square footage, among other factors. 

In June, the Bolinas Community Public Utility District granted the Aspen project a conditional expanded use permit for up to 224 gallons per day. District general manager Jennifer Blackman said that up to 25 percent of the water connections are currently capped at that number, while the average use is 150
gallons per day. 

(Overall water usage in Bolinas is limited by a 1971 moratorium that caps water service connections to 587 and restricts new development to instances in which an existing house is taken out of commission, such as by fire or a crumbling cliff.)

Despite the projected expanded use, the trust’s executive director, Arianne Dar, explained that they are collaborating with the utility district and county to create a new septic design and minimize water usage in hopes that the property will be a prototype for a new septic system pilot program. If successfully launched, the program will help Bolinas residents to upgrade their systems with the option of low or no-interest loans through the land trust, depending on their income level and ability to provide affordable housing on their property.

The trust has similar development plans for the undeveloped Overlook property. A long-term resident donated the three contiguous lots last December, and the trust was able to use one of the water meters it already owned at a downtown property to develop it. 

While the tenants at Aspen will likely be renters, the trust may explore a co-op model for Overlook in which the trust would own the land while the residents could own their unit.

The vision for the property, also zoned for single-family usage, is for a three-bedroom house that might include a junior unit as well as a separate, three-bedroom accessory unit. The trust is planning a seven-bedroom septic system and said it could present plans to the utility district later this month. 

Ms. Dar said that although they have not filed for permits for either project, the trust hopes to house people at the Aspen property by next spring. 

As far as cost estimates and funding, Ms. Dar declined to provide details, saying the trust’s board will present details to the community as soon as a project appears “viable.”  

She did point to the importance of a fundraising initiative launched earlier this year. The two-year campaign has raised $675,000 of its $2 million goal. The hope is that the fund will be a “revolving door” to provide start-up capital for a variety of projects. 

Ms. Dar explained Saturday that the trust’s long-term strategic plan—recently updated though not yet finalized by the board—is to create 50 new affordable housing units in Bolinas, which she believes “will stabilize our community in the long haul,” ensuring that at least the workforce is housed. 

There are five basic scenarios in which the trust can provide housing: the donation of a house, the purchase of a house at below-market rate, the creation of second units, partnerships in which residents buy homes with assistance from the trust and building homes from the ground up. 

Ms. Dar estimated that with a $2 million revolving fund the trust could leverage up to 67 units across the five scenarios. The idea is that any permanent monies invested, such as for a down payment, will return to the fund through mortgage or loan payments. There was no lack of opportunity for the trust, she said, only a lack of start-up funds. Revenue from Supervisor Dennis Rodoni’s proposed transient occupancy tax increase, which will be on the November ballot, could also contribute to start-up funds, she said. 

Community response

Community members who attended on Saturday had a number of questions, though there was little representation from the group MUSSEL—which stands for Mesa United in Support of Solutions for Equitable Land use—that has expressed a slew of criticisms in recent months. MUSSEL is concerned about the effects of more residents on the natural habitat, traffic congestion, water use, septic load, noise and more. 

In the June 8 Bolinas Hearsay News, MUSSEL member Polly Levin, who lives on Overlook Road, estimated the two proposed projects as well as two others that may be in the works would lead to a 58 percent increase in the population in the immediate neighborhood.

“This type of increase in population density will be perpetuated throughout the Gridded Mesa, according to the developer’s current vision of providing affordable housing in this community,” she wrote of the trust. “Can the infrastructure support this? Is it consistent with the Bolinas Community Plan, the Countywide Plan and the Local Coastal Program? Is it sustainable? These are issues that should be addressed in a systematic and professionally advised way.”

Representatives from the trust have continually assured the group that projects will comply with all regulations as well as the community and countywide plans. 

“Our practice will be to try not to over crowd lots but always abide by the 30 percent or less coverage regulations,” the trust wrote in the Hearsay in May. “We would always prefer to build less on more but recognize that there are very few large lots.”

In numerous letters, MUSSEL has asked for more community engagement. “What commitment can the [trust] make to involving neighbors of 430 Aspen and Overlook lot in the decisions of planning, design, density, construction, tenancy rules, choice of tenants and other details of the property?” the group asked. 

“Unfortunately, neighbors have very little say,” the trust responded in the same edition, explaining that the county will decide whether to approve projects, though the public will be able to comment to the county during the approval process. The trust said that, when possible, it will create opportunities for the community to weigh in on significant projects once they are determined feasible. 

The trust also hopes to create an environmental advisory group to work with neighbors to address visual impact concerns; any other complaints would go through a trust-operated homeowners' association. 

Environmental impacts are another concern for MUSSEL. A May 25 letter in the Hearsay pointed to the species native to Bolinas and lamented the possible loss of habitat at the Overlook property. It urged the trust to prioritize the acquisition of lots that have already been cleared or degraded. 

“If there are impacted lots that are large enough, dry enough that people want to give us, we would be happy to take them or even trade them,” the trust wrote in its reply. “Right now none are available so we are moving forward with what we have.” 

When asked by another resident, around 10 audience members raised their hands Saturday to show they were part of MUSSEL. One member, Claudio Martonffy, an Aspen homeowner, posed a question. 

An architect by trade, he wondered if the plans would set a new precedent on the mesa, where very few homes have as many as seven or eight bedrooms, and whether the trust “plans to conduct studies to project what the impact of that expanded development will be.”

Ms. Dar emphasized that the trust’s vision aligns with local development restrictions. There are a finite number of water meters in Bolinas, and each water meter has a limit to consumption. Though the trust plans to obtain an expanded water permit for at least the Overlook property, doing so is common in town, she said. 

“You cannot build multi-family dwellings any place in Bolinas other than downtown,” she said. “In our case, we are expanding to include a fourth bedroom for a room rental and a second unit for these properties and we can’t develop most properties with much more than that. Downtown, we can develop four units in a different way, but that will not be happening on the Big Mesa.” The trust owns two downtown residential properties that house 22 people and four commercial properties.

Reached this week, Ms. Blackman from BCPUD said increased density does not necessarily correspond to higher use. The residents at one of the trust’s downtown properties use the laundromat, for instance, greatly lowering water use at the property. In contrast, single residents who have extensive landscaping needs are some of the greatest consumers. 

Ms. Dar explained after the meeting that a household must have a certain income to qualify for affordable housing, which could present another natural cap on the number of people living in homes. For example, if a single person wished to have a partner move in, their joint income level would have to comply with affordable housing standards set by the county. 

What are those standards? Ms. Dar said the county prefers the trust serve “very, very low income” residents who make 30 percent of the county’s average median income. Low income, however, can range up to 80 percent of that amount, which is $118,000 per year for a family of four.

Pointing to the larger issue at hand, Ms. Dar added that about a third of the properties sold in Bolinas in the last two years have converted from permanent residences to second homes, reducing overall density across the village. 

Others were concerned about who will have the opportunity to live in the homes. The trust responded that its waiting list currently has 82 people, the vast majority of whom already live in Bolinas. But mostly the crowd praised the trust’s hard work and shared excitement about the housing prospects. 

The controversy raised by MUSSEL was also addressed. 

“When our anxieties creep in at 2 in the morning, and we are worried about this and that, how they might be doing something not in our best interest, let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt,” one man said. “Not all of us will agree how to get from point A to point B, but they have worked tirelessly without a hidden agenda.”

One woman asked how residents could assist in meeting the $2 million funding goal. 

Ms. Dar said a number of fundraisers have been held and acknowledged that they were expensive and that some residents were frustrated by that fact. But the people who could afford to go were making large, influential donations, she added. 

The last event, held in May and hosted by land trust board member Frances McDormand—of Oscar-winning fame—and Mark and Susie Buell, garnered $125,000 from attendees. “The people who are buying our homes, even if they are not living here full-time, they are the people who are funding you, who are eager to help. We need to welcome them,” Ms. Dar said.