Ruling requires new traffic analysis of Grady Ranch plans

06/18/2015

A lack of analysis of traffic impacts on Lucas Valley Road from a proposed affordable housing development at Grady Ranch has likely put the county’s Housing Element on hold, per a ruling by Judge Roy Chernus of the Marin County Superior Court this week. 

The Housing Element, an update of which was approved this year, stipulates how Marin should develop its state-mandated supply of affordable housing for the county’s workforce, residents and special needs populations, and emphasizes unincorporated areas. Though this week’s ruling applied to an environmental impact report used for the county’s previous Housing Element, it could affect the new document, which used the same impact report. 

The assistant director of the Community Development Agency, Tom Lai, said the agency will meet with county counsel this week to determine how the ruling pertains to the new element. 

Responding to a lawsuit filed in 2013 by the Marin Community Alliance—a group of Marin residents opposed to high-density development set forth in the county’s last Housing Element—Judge Chernus found that the S.E.I.R. “violated [the California Environmental Quality Act] by not conducting its own environmental analysis for the significant traffic impacts” on Lucas Valley Road. 

According to the attorney representing the alliance, Michael Graf, it did not address the cumulative impacts—such as traffic congestion, increased difficulty of accessing public services and school and visual impacts—of high-density development in areas identified by the county as suitable for affordable housing, such as Grady Ranch.

Instead, it ran through a checklist of impacts presented in an earlier environmental impact report appended to the 2007 Countywide Plan.

“Under CEQA, you have to look at the cumulative impacts of development in an area,” said Mr. Graf, who last year won a development-based case against the county representing the San Geronimo Valley’s Salmon Protection and Watershed Network. “[The county was] saying that there would be no cumulative impacts. The main concern was that they had certified this S.E.I.R., and that’s a green light for developers to say, ‘We don’t have to analyze cumulative
impacts.’”

Judge Chernus’s ruling largely skirted a host of other concerns addressed in the lawsuit, including the cumulative impacts of 48 other potential development sites in the county, Mr. Graf said. 

It is unclear what effect the court’s decision will have on county plans to increase affordable housing stock in Marin. (State law requires the county to have in place a Housing Element that outlines how it will promote and ensure affordable housing; in March, the state certified a Housing Element for Marin that applies to development through 2023.)

“County staff are in the process of reviewing the court’s decision and determining its potential implications, particularly since the alleged defect is narrowly focused on Lucas Valley Road and affects the prior Housing Element,” said Leelee Thomas, chief affordable housing planner for the Community Development Agency. “At this point, I don’t have any insights.” 

According to Supervisor Steve Kinsey, the county risks losing out on around $700,000 in state funding for transportation maintenance and expansion while the element is on hold. That money derives from a four-year block grant that is funded by federal and state gas taxes.

“In the long run, [the ruling] doesn’t appear to have any impact on land use, but it does have some short-term consequences that we’re working out,” Supervisor Kinsey said. 

He added that he did not believe the additional affordable housing units planned for Grady Ranch would create future adverse traffic conditions.

“I’m not particularly concerned about it,” he said. “From a capacity perspective, until you get down to the freeway, there won’t be any traffic issues, in my view.”

In April, filmmaker George Lucas submitted plans to build 224 affordable-housing units on a 52-acre portion of his 1,039-acre property known as Grady Ranch to the Marin County Community Development Agency. 

(That application was followed by a discussion on whether to designate Lucas Valley Road as a California Scenic Highway, which would bring restrictions on development at Grady Ranch. The county’s Board of Supervisors postponed, though did not kill, that discussion for another year.) 

The Grady Ranch proposal calls for a combination of senior and workforce housing—all rented at below-market rates—and other amenities, including a community center, a pool, terraced gardens, an orchard and a small farm, a barn, interior roadways with two bridges and a Golden Gate Transit District bus stop. 

It replaced earlier plans to build a 270,000-square-foot studio facility on the property, an idea Mr. Lucas scrapped after receiving pushback from a local neighborhood association. He also subsequently withdrew a plan to develop affordable housing on the property after funding from the Marin Community Foundation fell through in 2013.

The latest project is unique in that Mr. Lucas intends to finance it entirely out of his own pocket, thereby expediting the process.