Liza Crosse: Two decades serving Marin

04/27/2017

West Marin is an area without a town council, making the District 4 supervisor a key position and the area’s highest government representative. But aides to a supervisor are just as critical to operations: They field constituent input and questions, arrange schedules and dive into community issues, sometimes for quite a while. Liza Crosse, a longtime Woodacre resident who left a job in the city to take the position in 1997, served as Supervisor Steve Kinsey’s aide for two decades—his entire tenure—and another couple of months for Supervisor Dennis Rodoni to smooth the transition. To put it simply, she’s seen a lot, and understands the strengths and limitations of county government. 

Ms. Crosse recently sat down with the Light at the Two Bird Café to talk about her two decades of service, during which she delved into tricky issues around human waste, learned about the vast number of community organizations that make West Marin tick, and helped support the nascent organic food movement, among other efforts. As she put it, sometimes she was a broom, pushing community efforts along. But sometimes, she also had to be the bull.

 

Sam: How did you get to your position at the county?

 

Liza: I had been living in Woodacre for a number of years. I was working at U.C.S.F., managing a Ph.D. program, so I had a very long commute (and two little children whom I dropped off at different preschools along the way). That gave me a lot of the administrative skills that were a huge advantage when I came to the county. The flipside is that I knew nothing about West Marin, I knew nothing about government, I knew nothing about land use. 

 

Sam: Why did you apply for the job?

 

Liza: I was overwhelmed by little children and a big job in the city. I was standing at a soccer game one day talking to a woman named Maia Gladstern, a longtime county employee. I said, “If you ever hear of a job at the county, let me know.” She said Steve Kinsey was looking for an aide. I just had one of those moments in life where you know something is right. Fortunately, I had voted for the guy. (I nearly voted for his opponent because she appeared to have the environmental credentials, but my neighbor cleared that up and let me know Steve’s good work.) 

Steve interviewed me almost immediately—within a day or two. I appreciated his vision. I loved the idea of community engagement; I recognized that I was very removed from my community. And I felt good about Steve.

I realized quickly that an aide has a privileged position; you represent the supervisor. When [a constituent calls] for help, you get help, but you have to watch out that you don’t ask for too much. So I learned to walk that line. I fairly quickly moved into an area of personal passion: environmental issues and, from there, land use. I quickly felt that all of my gut feelings about Steve were fulfilled. The guy was brilliant: he had a deep knowledge of the district, he was remarkably open to all people. He would counsel us that when someone who was “important” called, you don’t necessarily bend over backwards for that person more than the homeless guy in Bolinas. Before he even defined his work on equity, it was apparent in the way he conducted himself. 

 

Sam: What was the first big issue you tackled?

 

Liza: It was one that, with 20 years of hindsight, I count as one of our biggest successes: fishery protection. Not that that issue is solved, by any means. At that time, the issue was just beginning to arise. Steve quickly became a leader in forming a multistate organization, and then a multi-county organization, called FishNet. The main objective was to get the counties to think about what they do that impacts fisheries. Over more than a decade, the county organized programs for everything from training staff to creating appropriate planning documents in land use and permitting, responding eventually to the Endangered Species Act and doing real and substantial construction projects, like placing culverts in key places. 

One of the most exciting moments was going with Steve and a group of people from [Marin Municipal Water District] and Sonoma County Water [Agency] to lobby for federal funds in Washington, D.C. We were successful. A substantial amount of money has been provided every year for Western coastal states. We hope it continues under the current political environment. There is a whole spectrum of work that is a result of leadership in that arena. 

Another issue that happened early was the whole crisis about pathogens in the Tomales Bay watershed, and the Marshall wastewater project. Something like 191 people got ill from eating raw oysters. The pathogen was identified to be a Norwalk-like virus, which is a human pathogen. We knew it came from human waste. It went from fairly acrimonious finger-pointing to a community that I really cite as an example of having an ability to compromise in order to achieve a greater good. I do credit the community members and very tenacious staff members for overcoming that acrimony and being willing to work together.

I still see, even in my own valley, where we’re dealing with the problem of wastewater, a complete denial about the reality. If they are not seeing the problem, there is no problem. 

 

Sam: What was your role in shifting the conversation?

 

Liza: I worked quite a bit on funding [the Marshall] project. I attended many, many community meetings to try to help shepherd the planning process. I often think of myself as a big broom: I keep pushing things along. I would regularly say, “Okay, we need the next meeting. Who is doing this action item? Did you do it? Are you going to report at the next meeting?” I think that was a signature of my style: to push the details along and help get things done and to understand the project or the issues or the regulatory arena in sufficient depth to know what the next pushbutton is so you can move it along. I would keep many lists of what the next thing was. Sometimes I thought of it as being a broom, but other times as being a bull.

The good news was that when we came to a second phase for the Marshall project, because the people being served had seen what a success the first phase was, 100 percent of the property owners participated. Without a single quibble. I credit the [county] environmental health division, which has evolved to some degree from simply being a regulatory agency that enforces rules to one that is trying, in a proactive way, to help people. That is also the beginning of a culture change. We didn’t go as far as we should have or could have, but there are enormous pressures in changing the way things are and changing wastewater in general.

In a simplistic world, we should all have our septic systems 100 percent compliant. But the barriers against that are huge. Environmental Health needs to do more, is basically the way I would put it, to help people make those changes

 

Sam: To help them upgrade?

 

Liza: Yes. But the reality is that people have to pay. We don’t live in a socialist country where there are high taxes and more revenue to provide services. Property owners have to pay. And I see the problem in Point Reyes Station as being another example of that. In Point Reyes Station, all of the businesses have closed their bathrooms, with the exception of the restaurants. And that’s not okay. I think the underlying problem is that businesses…don’t have the capacity to handle the waste flows in a conventional system. They [would all be] forced into going into these expensive alternate systems. 

It can be done. Empowering the community and the county to solve these issues through intelligent compromise and helping to get funding is something I would like to see continue.

 

Sam: If you were still at the county, what would be the next step?

 

Liza: I think Dennis is already doing the right thing. He is trying to understand the scope of the issue. County Parks has been charged with the first level of planning—to anticipate the [wastewater] needs of visitors—and the results of that study will be helpful. There are also a couple of committees, one being created by Sen. McGuire and the village associations to think about these larger issues. So those are the natural mechanisms. And I was helping Dennis, as I was going out the door, to help research the funding mechanisms for both construction and ongoing management, such as ways the community could assess itself or assign charges to businesses versus just property owners. It’s going to take compromise, or a collaborative project with the county and some kind of local business improvement district that provides greater local control and management to build and operate facilities.

 

Sam: What are some other major projects you worked on?

 

Liza: One of my favorite assignments was at the Tomales Bay Watershed Council. I was Steve’s representative. I helped to get the council off the ground by helping to fund it; I wrote grants. There were such stimulating conversations and people wanting to do good things. There were a number of projects that were inspired by our work that agencies took on, whether the R.C.D. or others. I have personally always hoped that the council would evolve into an organization that would do projects itself. In the end, I was a little frustrated that it didn’t go in that direction, and instead became a struggle to fund the organization over time. Handling projects would’ve provided some resources. But there are concerns about the level of staff that takes and competing with other organizations.

Still, I think the organization is valuable and I would like to see it stronger. At the moment the focus is on Chicken Ranch Beach. I think it’s a great project but it has some very real physical constraints, so a phased approach is a smart one. Historically, the community has been a bit naïve about the responsibilities of [the parks department] and how underfunded they are. The hope now is that with Measure A, there are some resources available. Once again, I would say I think people need to be realistic about what the county can contribute. 

I’ve learned that if you’re smart and strategic, you can usually get three quarters of what you want. I do think there are many people in West Marin who hold some kind of perfect ideal in their mind, whether an environmental scenario or for their own property, and the inability to compromise can do great harm. We often let the perfect be the enemy of the good in West Marin.

Pacific Way Bridge is another example of that, in Muir Beach. There has been, over about a dozen years, an effort to restore the historic Big Lagoon. That was one of the projects that benefited from the federal fisheries money. The park service did a stellar job of creating and designing a beautiful restoration that has been implemented in good part. But the very first issue was the Pacific Way Bridge on Pacific Way, which is a chokepoint. It forces the creek channel into a narrow space where historically there was a wetlands where the water meandered across. There have been years when salmon would end up in the field because the stream was so segmented. The restoration has helped some of that, but there’s still a chokepoint. And the reason why it hasn’t gone forward is because of the regulatory arena: Caltrans has standards, the park service wanted the perfect project—which was a causeway—and the community members don’t want a whopping great, big bridge. And the failure to compromise has resulted in designs that are unfundable. 

 

Sam: Have there been more instances in recent years of inabilities to find compromise, compared to the past? Has compromise become more difficult?

 

Liza: I think it has. The problems were already starting before I came. I think a little bit of it is privilege, and highly educated people who come with a certain perspective. But it’s also a reflection of what’s happening in the legislative world, with regulations that agencies struggle to implement in an arena where everyone and anyone can sue and in a community where people have the money to sue. It backs the agencies into the most rigid position and creates a very high bar to get anything done. So it’s sort of a mixture of both what’s happening in the regulatory world and legislation, and people’s state of mind.

I don’t mean to be all negative. Because I do feel like there are people—and this is one of the beauties of West Marin—there are amazing people doing incredible things. In achieving real change, both in local government and in the nonprofit community. That’s been one of the most exciting parts of my work as an aide.

I mentioned the watershed council. On the local government level I see organizations that are doing stellar work. The Bolinas Community Public Utility District comes to mind; they are an amazing organization. And they reflect their unique community well. The Marin R.C.D.: an award-winning organization with an incredible staff doing projects that are incredibly beneficial to the environment.  Another one is the East Shore Planning Group. They have been capable of really digging into complex details, understanding the regulatory arena and advocating for their interest, but not being so rigid that they can’t solve problems.

In the nonprofit world, we know MALT is a jewel. There are others to, like CLAM. I mentioned those two organizations—Bolinas Community Land Trust too—because they are getting to the heart of the issue that faces West Marin, which is the conversion of being a real working community to one that is a visitor-serving community. I do have great concern that West Marin will become an empty, chocolate-box, picturesque place where no real people live. 

Number one in retaining our community is supporting agriculture. People who come here as retirees may not fully understand that. But it is the key to sustaining our agricultural zoning. If we lose our agricultural zoning, West Marin will become a very different place. We need a viable agricultural industry to sustain that zoning.

The other reality is that it’s one of the key parts of our economy that supports real working people. So, if I had one farewell message for West Marin, it is support agriculture. To the mat. It means keeping in mind things like…slaughter.

 

Sam: That is a big issue that came up recently. How did that debate strike you? Were you surprised?

 

Liza: No, I wasn’t. But I was proud of Dennis. He stood up for ag, which is something he promised he would do.

One of the most difficult battles of our time was over Drakes Bay. I came to the job with a passionate Greenpeace mentality: save everything. Hold the fort, don’t allow one compromise. But I quickly learned that compromise is important. And compromise can be way more effective. As it related to Drakes Bay, I understand the purists there, but the reality is that it was a huge piece of real working West Marin. It was a piece of our agricultural industry. I mourn its loss. It wasn’t about the Lunnys; it was about agriculture. I understand why people felt so strongly that it needed to be wild. Better managed maybe.

 

Sam: Going back to the issue of preserving West Marin, what is the county’s role in regulating short-term vacation rentals?

Liza: I think we have to look to ourselves, as well as the county. We have to choose—and I personally have chosen—to rent to a local couple at lower than market rates because I believe in it. This way, I am allowing people who have lived here their whole lives to stay here. They’re trying to figure out their careers and buy a home and all that. They really want to be here. As property owners, we need to make that choice over Airbnb. But it’s hard when you have outsiders buying houses, so that’s where the county’s role comes in. Housing wasn’t my arena, but basically they have been doing a super job of very strategically looking at every aspect of housing and rentals with the goal of creating housing, and trying to support homeowners in creating permanent housing through a combination of incentives.

 

Sam: Has your view of the role of government in helping small communities like West Marin evolved over time? 

 

Liza: I think it’s more limited than we would like it to be. It is limited by resources. West Marin does get more of the county’s budget than it generates in tax revenue. In effect, East Marin subsidizes West Marin. That makes it really hard for Dennis, and Steve before him, to go to the Board of Supervisors and say, “I need big chunks of money for X, Y and Z.” People just don’t understand that. And why should they, if they’re not working on it every day? But they are a little bit naïve about what they can get from the county. That relates to the issue about the bathrooms and other community projects that come along. It was frustrating in that regard. We wanted to help people more, but you can’t always do what you want to do.

 

Sam: It’s pretty typical around the country that rural areas are subsidized by more popular population centers. But I think that comes as a surprise to people here, when we see visitors coming every weekend. 

 

Liza: The reality is that 80 percent of the county budget—all those property tax revenues and fees—are mandated by law to go to various specific projects. Only 20 percent of the county budget is discretionary. That further limits what the government can do. A lot of it is based on state law; the county is mandated to take care of certain activities, a lot of which is health and human services-related. That further limits our ability to respond to rural communities. And it’s just part of the American system. This is a nation that has chosen to have a lower tax rate and therefore government has less capacity.

For all that I’ve been critical—and I didn’t intend to be—I also believe supporting local businesses is critical. They are such an important part of providing local employment and keeping that “there there” in West Marin. 

But I think I would like to talk about some affirmative things that happen in the community. The San Geronimo Valley Community Center is such a hub for activity in the valley, providing an incredible range of services, whether the senior lunch or wellness days. We need to stand up for those organizations and participate and contribute. The West Marin Fund is trying to provide some stability to the local organizations. Again, I cannot provide a stronger statement of support for taking care of our organizations.

One issue has been exciting for me to work on is the broadband issue. It’s by no means done, and I was particularly excited to see Dennis pick it up. That was another one where I was a big broom. Steve really saw the value and importance to West Marin, and got quite a bit done, primarily by forming this consortium with other counties and funding some very specific planning about broadband. It’s a very interesting world. It was really a glimpse of what big corporate monopolies do. The politics that happen at the state level are very interesting to learn about. But the reality is that there are opportunities for West Marin.

 

Sam: I know Bolinas has been working on that issue.

 

Liza: Right. One of the biggest barriers was just understanding the complexity of the issues. That is really what held us back for a decade. Simply no one in the county understood how the corporate world works and the technological details. It wasn’t until Steve happened across a fellow named Peter Pratt, who is so incredibly knowledgeable, that we were able to start to get a little bit of traction.

 

Sam: Just yesterday the county announced they were not issuing any licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries. What are your thoughts about that?

 

Liza: I have mixed feelings about it. The reality is that we all voted to support medical marijuana, but we don’t like having it in our own backyard. I’ve had two personal experiences which make me embrace [the county’s] decision. One is that I have two sons, one who dabbled in marijuana and one who didn’t. And I saw the difference. It had a big effect. So I empathize with people who are concerned about their children and pot. 

The other aspect is that, because we have property in Oregon, I see what the legalization of marijuana is doing to Oregon. It’s horrific. That’s not even about the effects of marijuana; it’s the effect of marijuana grows. It was legalized so rapidly that none of the communities have regulations. And literally Philip Morris is moving in and planting monocultures. That’s not the threat in West Marin, but the marijuana industry brings other repercussions that I’m more sensitive to now. 

 

Sam: Looking back at what happened in Marshall versus the valley with wastewater issues, do you think it’s a more controversial conversation in the valley?

 

Liza: Oh, it was a war up there [in Marshall.] What happens in these projects is that there are a few loud people who get a lot of attention from the press because they represent the opposite viewpoint. The reality is that the situation in the valley is more complex. There are more homes and more types of homes. But the simple compromise that was achieved in Marshall can be achieved here too. Some people are concerned about technical issues. I’m equally concerned and want to make sure it’s designed and built well without triggering development. That’s where the Marshall compromise serves as such a straightforward example. 

In Marshall, they chose to limit themselves to additions of no more than 500 square feet and to exclude undeveloped parcels. We can do the same here. The E.I.R. will analyze different options. There’s one nuance, which is that there are some very small homes in the valley, like 700 square feet. Maybe they could come up to the median size. A related concern is the increase in impervious surface area. That will be analyzed in E.I.R. There are ways to address that, which is to require that if anyone is adding impervious surface, they have to offset it, such as by pulling out the driveway, so there’s no net increase. These are just ideas. I do think there are a few people in the community who are so afraid of the development issue that they don’t believe we can contain it. But the example of Marshall has stood for a decade.

This is hard for people to understand, but basically, the septic regulations give you an entitlement for a certain amount of square footage, depending on the percolation rates. As soon as you take that regulation away, if you don’t have a septic anymore, it reverts to the [underlying] zoning. In Woodacre, there are all these parcels that are 100 by 100 square feet. They get a 30 percent floor area ratio. So the house can be 3,000 square feet. Right now, the median [home] size in central Woodacre is under 1,500 square feet, so if we don’t deal with the problem, we could potentially, over time, see as much as a doubling of house size. That concerned some people.

 

Sam: It’s an issue that popped up in Inverness too, with projects like Hidden Dragon.

 

Liza: Of course, they had very large lots and nowhere near the floor-area ratio.

One of the joys of the job has been helping people. As I became more informed over time, I became more useful. Now I can really help people define services or figure out a permit. It’s a gift to be put in that position. 

There are great people, fantastic people, within the community. And in the Civic Center: the dedicated people there. The intellectual caliber. Just recently, I had the experience of being on a cruise and I was with some ladies from Texas at our table. I realized that the community of people that I’ve interacted with are so intellectual and represent such diverse interests, backgrounds, perspectives and professions that my world has been made much larger and richer because of the people I interact with. The ladies in the conversation—their world was very tiny. They were perfectly intelligent, their world was just tiny. I realize that I have been so privileged to be in a place with conversations that range across an enormous spectrum of issues. That’s a lucky place to be and I fear losing that. 

When I recover a little bit, I will look for some kind of volunteer opportunity. I’ve done a fair bit of serving on boards. Sometimes I think that more esoteric level of planning is important, but maybe I would also like to be involved in direct services. Literally growing food or providing healthy food to people who eat nothing but carbohydrates. Or literacy. 

One of the very fun things I did early on was help create the organic industry—and really, I should say, the organic label. Fairly early in my time with Steve, Ellie Rilla was the farm advisor and we were meeting with a group of farmers who had the idea of an organic label and really had the vision of sustainable farming. So I went into a meeting with these hippie-looking folks and they really had the dream spelled out. We realized the importance of marketing organic and she and I decided that they needed a business plan. I twisted Steve’s arm and we got $5,000 in county funding and Ellie got $5,000 from the farm advisor’s office and they did that business plan and it was well done and it led to Marin Organic. 

From there, over the years, we supported Marin Organic. There was an incredible explosion of the organic industry. I count that as one of my most joyful successes. Talk about great parties! Best one was when Prince Charles came. The person he really wanted to hang out with was Dennis Dierks, because he had expertise in brewing fertilizer teas.

[Looking back], another thing was elections—the ordeal of having to go through an election. I understand how important it is to the democratic process, but it’s an enormous burden. 

 

Sam: Was there a particular election that was really difficult?

 

Liza: It was hard for me to see Steve slandered about the smart growth piece of his vision. People took it as meaning he was pro-development, which is completely false. He was labeled that way, very incorrectly and in a way that was often applied in a vicious manner. 

While I worked for Steve I served on a lot of boards. The Lagunitas Creek Technical Advisory Committee for 18 years, as the board’s representative. And I chaired that. I learned a ton about watershed issues. I served on the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary’s nonprofit foundation. I served on the San Geronimo Valley Community Center board, which was hard work for five years, but with amazing people. Then I was appointed to the Marin Municipal Water District board. Prior to that, I served for three years on the rate structure committee, which is very technical work. So I came in feeling like I was doing a good job. Then I went through my own election and lost by a few hundred votes. I felt very slandered in the process. That was a brutal experience. It took me a while to get over it. But because of that experience, because of how time-consuming it was, I had spent some time before I got on the board clearing my other obligations. So when I retired, I was free.

 

Sam: What are you up to now?

 

Liza: My husband and I are going to be spending six months of the year in Oregon. We bought the property about 10 years ago. The whole idea was to find a way to use it part-time. My husband retired a little more than a year ago. It’s a total fixer-upper but we’re very passionate gardeners. He’s had a career as a landscape contractor. The dream is to make a beautiful garden and feed people. 

I am daunted by the dramatic change it will represent in my life. I’ve been really used to a fast pace, and I really enjoyed the stimulation that brings, as well as the contact with amazing people. Moving to a quiet place even though we have a big project—I worry how I am going to feel about that.

I feel really lucky to have had one term working with Dennis. For me, I feel such affection for county government, but also for the place. I learned to know it well. I didn’t realize when Steve was leaving that it would be so hard to say farewell. [I was so thankful to have] the opportunity to work with Dennis, to get to know him and how dedicated he is and how much energy he has for the job. His values are so right. He is in a wonderful, responsive, listening mode. I always liked the guy, but I gained an enormous respect over the past couple of months. And then he brought on two new aides and it’s been joyful to hand everything off to them.