More delays for long-stalled valley home

08/29/2018

The Planning Commission this week sympathized with Lagunitas homeowners whose renovations plans for their century-old house dating to 2011 have long been delayed by the county’s analysis of cumulative development impacts on fish in the San Geronimo Valley. That analysis was a court mandate stemming from a 2010 Salmon Protection and Watershed Network lawsuit that first imposed an injunction on development and later changed development standards.

Yet the county’s impending finalization of that cumulative analysis may again scramble the plans for the Lagunitas project—the only pending development in the valley that may get caught in the crosshairs of the updated conservation standards.  

On Monday, the Planning Commission granted the request by Adrienne Terrass and her husband, Aldo Tarigo, an architect who designed the plans himself, for two more months to iron out remaining disputes with county staff.  

The owners in June had appealed a decision by the county’s environmental planning manager, Rachel Reid, to require a more intensive environmental impact report. Ms. Reid had been frustrated by their refusal to agree to mitigation measures outlined in an initial environmental study completed for the project, and proposed the E.I.R. 

The owners argued that some of the recommended mitigation measures, including replacing an existing bridge on the property in order to bring it up to code, were not based on accurate information or expert opinion.

In its support of Ms. Terrass and Mr. Tarigo, the commission did not follow the recommendation of county staff to deny the appeal and press forward with an environmental impact report, and instead postponed their decision. Commissioners unanimously agreed to continue the hearing to late October, characterizing the couple as “good actors” and encouraging a resolution of disputes over the initial study.

Under CEQA protocol, if an applicant refuses to sign onto mitigation measures, they must proceed with an E.I.R. (As an alternative, the county could prepare a declaration of negative impact to finalize the environmental review, which would be far less intensive and expensive.)

The Lagunitas homeowners said they couldn’t pay for a full-blown E.I.R. and still afford their renovation. The commission’s chair, Margot Biehle, herself a lawyer, said she thought it was a case in which the law was getting in the way of a common-sense resolution.

“This is the kind of project I find extremely frustrating,” Ms. Biehle said. “We have good actors that are caught between the law and [the California Environmental Quality Act]. It’s very frustrating because our hands are tied—and it’s too bad.”

Her sympathies were echoed by all the commissioners after listening to testimony from the owners, who took issue with a number of key facts about the project as they were presented by county staff.

Mr. Tarigo and Ms. Terrass argued that although they did not seek a permit to replace a decaying bridge over Barranca Creek—a tributary of San Geronimo Creek—in 2006, they had not received a subsequent notice of violation from the county. County staffers asserted that a former engineer for the Department of Public Works had advised them to stop constructing the bridge that year, but that the owners continued. Still, staff later conceded there was no violation on file.

In the initial study, the Department of Public Works also deemed the unpermitted bridge too low—both to meet the standard to clear flows by a least two feet during a 100-year storm and to conform with protocol for keeping abutments above the streambank. Yet Ms. Terrass and Mr. Tarigo argued that professional hydrologists had surveyed the work and, using state data for storm projections, found the bridge compliant.

The two also made the plea that a SPAWN employee had encouraged them to remove the old bridge, which threatened to collapse and dam the stream before the year’s rainy season. That advice encouraged them to make the decision to build a replacement without first obtaining permits. 

Ms. Terrass said there were a number of other falsehoods in the county staff report that cast her and her husband in a negative light. She clarified that the new plans lower, as opposed to increase, the total square footage. The main house will drop from 2,698 to 2,240. 

Given their outstanding concerns about the accuracy of the initial study, Mr. Tarigo and Ms. Terrass had declined to sign the county’s initial environmental study, a CEQA requirement. They took issue in particular with two proposed mitigation measures in that document, including that the existing bridge needed to be replaced to bring it up to code and that the square footage for the new house needed to be lowered in order to sit further back from the stream.

The county’s response, to require an E.I.R., had blindsided them, Ms. Terrass said.

“We can’t prepare an E.I.R. and still afford to build a new house,” she told the commission. “And our house is falling apart, the concrete, the roof, the rot, the mice…”

Instead, Ms. Terrass asked for more time to resolve the remaining disputes with the county—a plea to which the commission was amenable.

Commissioner Don Dickenson had one request, however: That the home be located further back from the stream, which under current plans is just over 14 feet away. He said the owners should make a better effort to comply with the county’s 20-foot creek setback rule.

Mr. Tarigo, an architect by trade, said the placement allowed for a more interesting shape—an argument Commissioner Dickenson deemed inadequate.

County staffers have also asked for a number of improvements to the project intended to benefit the stream. These include bank restoration and the replacement of 2,300 square feet of an existing road leading up the bridge with new soil, native grasses and clovers. The construction of a partially-pervious, one-car parking area and new driveway—made with crushed rock and TuffTrak, a brand of ground protection mat that helps prevent erosion—was also outlined.

For his part, planning manager Jeremy Tejirian, the project’s lead at the county, expressed concern that the commission’s decision to afford the owners two more months could exponentially delay the project.

Long-awaited changes to the county’s approach to development in the San Geronimo Valley, which has been tied up for nearly a decade by the lawsuit filed by SPAWN, are in the wings. 

To address the court mandate to investigate the cumulative impacts of development on fish in the valley and to determine mitigation measures for those impacts, the county released a final environmental impact report this month, a supplement to the E.I.R. associated with the 2007 Countywide Plan. 

The report will come before the commission this month, after which it will go to the Board of Supervisors for certification.

Per court order, the county was forced to abide by the 1994 Countywide Plan to assess development in the valley while it prepared the report. The initial environmental study for the Lagunitas property was prepared under that older plan.

The ’94 plan also has conservation measures for streamside development, but Mr. Tejirian said that although no major changes come to mind to make the project comply with the 2007 plan, their initial environmental study would nevertheless have to be rewritten.