Moonrise Kingdom should proceed based on its merits

08/03/2017

We’ve been looking over the record of the county’s approval—at three levels so far—of Moonrise Kingdom, the residential restoration project in Inverness. The more we read, the more puzzled we become about why the plans have been appealed again. 

The secluded site on Vision Road was developed in a folksy, hand-built vernacular in the 1960s and ’70s by Howard and Cecil Waite, who might be described as the godparents of the hippie generation that was settling into West Marin at the time. It’s an eclectic collection of idiosyncratic buildings, built mostly of locally sourced lumber milled on site and influenced by styles and construction techniques that caught Howard’s eye as he traveled the world as an engineer for USAID.   

The Waites are now long gone, and for the last few years the property has sat unoccupied—except by squatters—with the architecturally significant buildings deteriorating at an alarming rate. Finally, the Waites’ heirs were able to sell the six-acre property to Trevor and Alexis Traina, of the namesake San Francisco socialite family.

In what seemed a miraculous win-win, the Trainas were focused on preserving and rehabilitating the key structures, rather than (as would have been more likely) tearing everything down and starting over with a large, showcase manse.

Late last year, the deputy zoning administrator approved the plans, which include rehabilitating several structures, tearing down a few others, and building a new single-family home for the Trainas and their two young children. The administrator’s approval hinged on a few tweaks, including trimming a tower on one structure known as the “windmill” to comply with county height limits. 

But the Inverness Association appealed, sending the matter to the county’s Planning Commission. There it received a green light in June with an unusual degree of enthusiasm. Commissioners, in their 6-1 vote, even reversed the decision to trim the windmill after listening to compelling expert testimony that extolled the cultural legacy of Howard’s designs. 

Yet the Inverness Association appealed a second time. The Board of Supervisors will hear that appeal on Aug. 8.

Sifting through the appeal documents and the comment letters opposing the project, a couple of dominant themes emerge.

Most prevalent is that it’s too large. This argument ignores the fact that half of the 8,500 square feet of development lies in the key historic buildings whose original charm and architectural significance will be restored by the Trainas.  

The new house, which the Trainas will build in a style complementary to Waite’s buildings, clocks in at less than 4,000 square feet of floor area, not at all out of scale with numerous large houses built throughout Old Inverness in the early part of the last century. 

Nor is it out of scale with properties on Vision Road. The Trainas’ nearest neighbor, who vocally supports the project, has close to 7,000 square feet of development. So does a neighbor a little further down, who penned an op-ed against the project, calling it a “mega-development.” There are numerous larger residential developments in West Marin, in Inverness, Bolinas and elsewhere.

Secondly, there are the “community character” issues that tend to be boilerplate in appeals.  But because it’s Howard’s style that’s being saved and replicated, the community character argument is hard to make. Instead, we are embarrassed by rhetoric that only thinly disguises an antipathy to the applicants themselves. 

We reject the notion that who the applicants are is relevant. Each project must be evaluated solely on the basis of its merits and its compliance with codes and objective standards, not on opinions about “these people” and whether or not their values are the same as ours.

A new demand that has emerged also troubles us: that the Trainas be required to add and deed-restrict a unit of affordable housing on the site. The county clearly has no legal authority to impose (or coerce) such a requirement on a single-family residential project. To even suggest such as a quid pro quo for a favorable outcome could open the county up to an expensive court challenge.

We believe the redevelopment plan proposed for this iconic site clearly merits the recommendations that were bestowed on it by members of the Planning Commission, who also determined that the project was approvable on its merits. It’s our good fortune that the Trainas have the commitment—and the means—to undertake the restoration and preservation of Howard and Cecil Waite’s cherished, internationally recognized legacy. This is an opportunity to salvage a meaningful chapter in the county’s history, and we urge the supervisors to not let it slip away. 

 

Wade Holland served on the Marin County Planning Commission for 13 years; he retired this spring, before the commission heard the Inverness Association’s appeal of Moonrise Kingdom. Tess Elliott has edited the Point Reyes Light for 10 years, for the last two years as co-publisher. Both live in Inverness.