MUSSEL denied appeal of trust's plan

11/20/2019

The Bolinas Community Land Trust held onto its coastal permit to develop a vacant property on Overlook Drive this week, after the county rejected an appeal brought by neighbors who argued the project violated development and environmental laws—and threatened their quality of life. 

Planning commissioners, who considered the appeal on Monday, failed to find validity in the claims posed by a group of around 40 Bolinas residents who call themselves MUSSEL, or Mesa United in Support of Solutions for Equitable Land-use. MUSSEL submitted its objections in June, seeking to overturn the deputy zoning administrator’s approval of the permit.

In anticipation of the hearing, a wave of support rose for the trust: more than 80 Bolinas residents sent letters to commissioners in favor of the Overlook project, and still others spoke on Monday.

Addressing the commissioners in person, Bolinas Community Public Utility District board member Don Smith affirmed that the trust’s plans are compliant regarding water use. He also expressed his disappointment in the appeal.

“This is a plain-vanilla project that’s been treated just the same as any other project,” Mr. Smith said. “There have been many private projects bigger than this, squeezed into a smaller lot than this, with no public scrutiny such as the land trust has been required to go through. And nobody seems to care about those, so it’s very disturbing to me that a group of neighbors would select out the land trust project for persecution, [which] is what it seems like to me.”

A key aspect of MUSSEL’s appeal was that the project could violate the town’s strict water rules. The group opposed the BCPUD’s allotment of a maximum 224 gallons of water per day for the property, where the trust plans to build three units: a 1,550-square-foot single-family residence that includes a junior accessory unit, and a 1,145-square-foot accessory dwelling unit.

The appeal, which San Rafael attorney John Sharp filed on behalf of the group, reads, “Given the proposed density of the development on its own, and taken together with other developments [the trust plans], a serious potential adverse environmental impact arises with respect to whether it can realistically be expected that BCPUD’s limitation is achievable, given the number of potential users under the proposed density at the development site.”

Mr. Smith explained to commissioners that the district administers a finite number of water meters thanks to a moratorium put in place in the ‘70s. The trust’s use of one of these meters to develop the Overlook property does not present any threat to water supply, he said. The specific water allotment is a standard cap the BCPUD is prepared to enforce. 

The idea that the county should evaluate the land trust’s project not alone but in tandem with other projects it has in the works pervaded MUSSEL’s argument.

The trust has plans both for land adjacent to the Tacherra Ranch and for a downtown property next to Smiley’s. This summer, it obtained county approval for a remodel of 430 Aspen Road, a street that runs parallel to Overlook. The trust also owns several other undeveloped lots on Aspen, but has yet to unveil any plans for development. 

In its appeal, MUSSEL asked the county to conduct a full review under the California Environmental Quality Act that considered the cumulative environmental impacts of the projects.

But in their report to the commission, county staffers held firm that the projects must be evaluated separately under CEQA protocol. “There are no other currently pending applications on lots abutting the subject property and, therefore, staff can only base its analysis for this project on the project itself, the existing neighborhood, and other pending or approved projects nearby,” they wrote.

Staffers reiterated the county’s original finding that the Overlook project was categorically exempt under CEQA, a standard practice for single-family homes. They also clarified that the project was still within the scope of a single-family home despite the inclusion of the accessory and junior accessory dwelling units, an allowance under recent California laws.

There were no unusual circumstances that threatened the CEQA exemption, staff continued, discounting a series of environmental concerns from MUSSEL.

The most significant of these concerns regarded a constructed drainage ditch, which BCPUD uses for sanitation operations adjacent to the Overlook property. MUSSEL believed the area should be treated as a wetland, but a third-party biological assessment and the California Coastal Commission disagreed. 

MUSSEL was also concerned about traffic, but county staff said a traffic analysis was unnecessary. 

“The anticipated increase in traffic due to the project will not conflict with any applicable plans, ordinances or policies establishing measures of effectiveness for the performance of the circulation system,” they wrote. “The appellant provides no evidence to demonstrate the project would generate a significant amount of traffic so as not to qualify for a categorical exemption.”

Commissioners agreed with staff’s recommendations, and voiced their support for the land trust’s efforts to create affordable housing in a blown-out rental market.

District Four commissioner Chris Desser asked the executive director of the land trust, Arianne Dar, to explain how she planned to rent the units. Ms. Dar said the trust would authorize separate rental agreements for the main house and accessory dwelling unit, while the junior accessory dwelling unit would remain as a flexible space, likely under the control of the tenants in the main house.

Ms. Desser said she thought it would be unorthodox not to place everything under the control of the renters in the main house, but also voiced her strong support for the trust’s project and acknowledged that this was part of setting a precedent for new state legislation that handles accessory dwelling units. She also addressed some of MUSSEL’s specific points.

“As far as I’m concerned, the environmental objections have been met, the water objections have been met,” she said. “There is a separate agency in Bolinas, the water agency, that dealt with these concerns and has a remedy if, in fact, the water use goes over the specified amount. Having been on the coastal commission for many years, I know how serious they are about wetlands: they have determined that this is a ditch. And not only that, the buildings are still planned within a sufficient setback here.”

Commissioner Pete Theran expressed the most sympathy for MUSSEL’s concerns. He referenced the goal the trust unveiled last August: to create 50 new affordable units in Bolinas in order to stabilize the housing crisis. 

“Well, no other person who wants to buy a house on the gridded mesa is going to say, ‘I want to buy this house and I need [50] more.’ I get the concern. If they accomplish their mission, what would that look like here?” Mr. Theran asked.

In his closing remarks, however, Mr. Theran said he supported the land trust’s mission and thought it would be a “remarkable achievement.” It wasn’t a reality yet, he emphasized.  

“I understand the concern,” Mr. Theran said. “What would it look like at some point if they get all these houses built, remodeled or whatever? But I don’t think it applies to our discussion today.”

Representatives from MUSSEL also spoke at the hearing. 

Mary Abbott, who recently sold her family’s home on the mesa after 46 years in part due to the trust’s nearby development, said, “Sobering moment two years ago when the land trust made a presentation to the neighbors and described all the projects they were going to do in our neighborhood: I was surrounded. It was kind of like having Walmart come and say they were moving in. It was a big shock.”

She continued, “We reached out to the land trust and tried to engage, but the response was that, ‘the neighbors have no say.’ That was very discouraging, and we have tried now for several years to engage meaningfully with them to create a project for homes there on the mesa that are going to work on all the factors that we have there operating for us.”

Nancy Sweet has lived on Overlook for four decades. “Part of the reason I’ve stayed is that Bolinas is unique in trying to control the rate of its growth, beginning with the water moratorium,” she said. “We do support low-income housing. The question is how that is going to happen and what effect it is going to have on Bolinas’s future.”

Janine Aroyan, another in the group, emphasized that everyone supports affordable housing, and that her concerns center on the process. 

“There are a lot of wealthy donors in Bolinas, and what happens is that the leadership and the donors get together and they find a lot, they develop a plan, they present it to the community and there’s very little input,” she said. “We want to see the community involved in the placement and balance of housing, along with the other environmental concerns, in a much more vetted manner—that’s my point.”  

Prompted by Commissioner Don Dickinson, land trust board member Leila Monroe said the trust had attempted to reach an agreement with MUSSEL after the group filed the appeal, leading to a slight delay in the hearing. MUSSEL had asked for the trust to use the undeveloped lots on Aspen as a site for environmental mitigation for the Overlook development. Considering the difficulty in obtaining property at all in town, as well as the opinion of the trust that mitigation was unnecessary, they remained at odds, Ms. Monroe explained.

Evie Wilhelm, the trust’s managing director, said she was moved to speak by the comments on Monday. 

“I’m so shocked that this group is seeing community housing as Walmart moving in, and I think that comment alone puts into perspective this group’s very skewed viewpoints on our organization and the work that we do,” she said. “We hold a list of over 100 people. Of that 100 we have 35 families, over 35 seniors. Our waitlist contains firefighters, first responders, employees to our water district, teachers, business owners, service workers. Our waitlist is our community.”