Moonrise Kingdom okay, commission says

06/15/2017

After over three hours of deliberation at a public hearing last Tuesday, the Marin County Planning Commission denied an appeal by the Inverness Association and greenlighted permits for a proposed development known as Moonrise Kingdom, at the top of Vision Road in Inverness. Yet the commission, in a 6-1 vote, conditioned its approval on adopting almost all of the terms requested by the association—excluding the request that the footprint shrink.

Most attendees spoke in favor of the project and the respectful nature of the property owners. Alexis and Trevor Traina, San Francisco residents, have committed to restoring several cabins on the six-acre property that are considered important examples of the hand-built house movement of the 1960s.

“This has been nothing short of a spectacular response to a very unique, amazing site,” commission chair John Eller said of the plans before casting his vote of approval.

But the ruling was a blow to the Inverness Association, which argued that the size of the development—a total of 8,544 square feet—was “out-of-scale with the surrounding neighborhood” and could negatively impact both the year-round community and the parkland that directly borders the lot.

“We got everything we wanted, except the most important thing—reducing the size,” Catherine Caufield, a member of the association who lives on Vision Road, said after the hearing.

The plans outline a new home with a building area of 4,481 square feet and a floor area of 3,993 square feet, as well as the legalization and restoration of three primary structures: a 1,610-square-foot cabin known as the “windmill,” a 32-foot-tall structure; an 870-square-foot barn; and a 1,146-square-foot cabin known as Howard’s House.

Richard Olsen, an architectural expert, previously told the Light that the latter “perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the environmentally focused revolt culture that erupted in the state in the 1960s.” He said the fact that the Trainas “have opted to painstakingly restore and adapt themselves to this funky little building, with all its Waite idiosyncrasies literally built into its every nook, is frankly as unexpected as it is laudable.”

Two of the property’s immediate neighbors expressed their adamant support at hearing, saying the couple was in the necessary financial position to “steward” the property, which is in a state of disrepair. Both of the Trainas commented, confirming their “love for everything about the homestead.” Mrs. Traina used most of her speaking time to read a letter of support from Mr. Waite’s daughter, Nancy Waite, who could not attend the hearing. 

Ultimately, commissioners approved the coastal permit, use permit and design review for Moonrise Kingdom, with a number of conditions. Among them, the Trainas must move the water tanks to a less visible location further from Vision Road (or else to paint them green), use only native plants for landscaping, reroute proposed paths to retain as many healthy trees as possible, repave or restore the road near the site after construction, refine the location of the leach field, and limit construction activities to the months outside the nesting season for northern spotted owls and other nesting migratory birds, which breed nearby.

During the hearing, county staff withdrew another condition previously included by the county’s deputy zoning administrator that would have been an additional victory for the association. In a past letter to the county, the association suggested that eliminating the windmill structure would reduce the project’s footprint, better cluster the structures, eliminate a “threat to the viewshed” and avoid “a battle over the height limit exemption.” The zoning administrator in large part agreed, ruling that the tower be removed.

But testimony by an associate professor of architecture from the University of California, Berkeley (who clarified that he was not employed by the Trainas) convinced commissioners to overturn that decision. Greg Castillo recently curated a show at a recent Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive exhibition that prominently featured a photograph of Mr. Waite’s Inverness cabin. After he spoke of the considerable architectural significance of Mr. Waite’s designs and their cultural legacy, county staff suggested that the windmill be kept as close to its original form as possible. All commissioners agreed, except the lone dissenter of the entire approval, Don Dickinson.

“If they were doing a complete restoration, that would be one thing,” he said. “But that’s not the case. A lot is going to change during the remodel, and so I think the windmill should come down to an appropriate size.” But he was overruled in 6-1 votes, both for the overall approval of the project and in a special, spontaneous vote on the issue of the windmill. 

The Inverness Association had also argued that the proposed development is inconsistent with Marin County’s single-family residential design guidelines and the Inverness Ridge Community Plan. The county determined that these claims were unfounded, however, concluding that the project is consistent with both guidelines.

The Inverness Association and the attorney for the Trainas presented conflicting numbers as to median square footage of homes in the area.  

But the county stated that because the lot is six acres, the proposed 7,619 square feet of floor area constitutes a 3 percent floor area ratio, which is well within the guideline limit of 30 percent. The staff report by Community Development Agency states that “a residence of this size is not out of character with residences located in the surrounding Inverness community, which is comprised of a wide range of home sizes, nor is it out of character with the newer homes located throughout Marin County.”

The staff report also stated that since half of the proposed building area is associated with already existing structures, which have both architectural and sentimental value, the circumstances are unique.

Helene Wright, whose family’s fourth-generation property on Vision Road is “the only residence that would have a view of the Trainas’ property,” commented during the hearing that she and her family were all in support of the construction. The Wright family was friends with the Waites—Mr. Waite even officiated Mrs. Wright’s wedding—and “none of them would have wanted to see it developed into a ‘McMansion,’ and that is absolutely not what is happening,” she said.

“The [structures] aren’t out of character with the neighborhood, because we are the neighborhood,” she said, citing her own property’s multiple structures, which include a total of seven bathrooms and eight bedrooms.

Another Inverness resident argued that the size of the development would have impacts on the next generation: “If there are larger and larger single lots developed, that dictates who can live here next, and it certainly isn’t a family of modest means.”

Yet another resident argued that “Inverness has always been a place of vacation homes.”

Finally, the agenda for Tuesday’s hearing listed a separate item: a zoning issue with the property that the Inverness Association had raised in its appeal.

The property consists of two parcels, one of which was long labeled C-OA on county maps, an open space designation that prohibits residential development. Yet the county argued that the label was likely made in error, around 40 years ago. The designation is reserved primarily for public land, and there are no records for Mr. Waite’s consent for his land to be converted into protected land. Furthermore, the county appeared to have omitted the parcel altogether when the part of the Local Coastal Plan was approved in 1982. And when the first Countywide Plan to establish land use designations was adopted in 1994, the county referred back to the original mislabeled map and designated it open space.

“Back then, we did this all without computers, and I’m surprised that this hasn’t come up before,” Commissioner Dickenson said. “This appears to be the only orphan lot that escaped an update. This anomaly is a testament to the uniqueness of the site.”

Planning commissioners solved the issue by voting unanimously to recommend that the Board of Supervisors rezone the property to C-RSP-0.1—or coastal, residential, single-family, planned, one unit per 10 acres. They also moved to clarify the designation in the Countywide Plan’s designation of the parcel, and on the zoning map for the Local Coastal Program.