Supervisors okay smaller Moonrise Kingdom

08/10/2017

In a deal brokered by Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, Moonrise Kingdom, the residential development and restoration project slated for the Inverness Ridge, will go forward—though in a smaller form than proposed. 

After hearing impassioned testimony by nearly two dozen people, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved plans submitted by Trevor and Alexis Traina to build a new home and preserve a handful of cabins considered important examples of the handmade house movement. Catherine Caufield, member of the Inverness Association, which had appealed the plans to the board, gave a verbal promise not to appeal the decision to the California Coastal Commission.

Under Supervisor Rodoni’s proposal, which supervisors unanimously supported, the Trainas’ home will be halved to under 2,000 square feet, one structure will be considered for use as a rental by a caretaker and a tower on the most contested structures will be blended into the surroundings to reduce its visual impact. 

In proposing the changes, Supervisor Rodoni acknowledged the tension surrounding the project. “Most of you are my friends and neighbors, and I hope we all still feel that way at the end of today,” he said. “I want to recognize the Trainas’ commitment and desire to restore the existing structures, but we also need to protect the character of this community and to acknowledge the concerns about size.”

The board’s decision broke with the county staff recommendation to deny the appeal and allow the plans to proceed as proposed by the Planning Commission, which heard the Inverness Association’s first appeal back in June. At that time, the Trainas agreed to numerous new conditions, including moving water tanks to a less visible location, only using native plants for landscaping, refining the location of the leach field and much more. 

But the association’s main complaints revolved around the size of the total development—7,619 square feet of floor area—and the height of a tower on a structure known as the Windmill. 

But in their 6-1 vote to deny the appeal, planning commissioners said the project’s size was not out of character with the community or out of scale with developments in West Marin. That argument was reiterated on Tuesday by county planner Jeremy Tejirian, who said the project was in accordance with the Countywide Plan, single-family residential design guidelines and the Inverness Ridge Communities Plan. He countered some public speakers’ assumptions that the county had fixed rules pertaining to size. 

“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 stated.

Yet each supervisor supported shrinking the size of the development to better comport with the character of Inverness, whose charms a number of them extolled.

Supervisor Rodoni proposed to reduce the total square footage to 5,500, with the logic that it would keep the project between 105 and 110 percent of the largest existing home in Inverness. 

But he also lamented the fact that there was no maximum limit to square footage for homes in Inverness, and said he would begin to help develop such a guideline in the community plan to help streamline future projects. 

Speakers at the hearing, the majority of whom were from Inverness, were divided on the issues of size and community character. Many expressed concern that the size would set a precedent that would lead to ever larger projects in the area, though others, including the Trainas’ immediate neighbors, spoke in favor of the project. 

Notably, many spoke out against the Inverness Association, saying its appeal was mean-spirited and had alienated community members. 

“This appeal is a sham and has nothing to do with the details of the property. It deserves more than just a rejection, but condemnation in many ways,” longtime Inverness Park resident Frank Seidner said. “The association claims to be politically progressive and open, but has instead expressed clear animosity toward the wealthy and the prominent. A neighborhood association is normally regarded as an organization fostering harmony and friendship. The Inverness Association is exactly the opposite. It has turned Inverness into an intolerant and unwelcoming place.” 

Ivan Diamond, of Point Reyes Station, characterized the appeal as “dangerous.” He called the association’s leadership a vocal minority that does not speak for the community, and said the association “created an atmosphere of fear, where people in support of the project are afraid to speak out against the ardent objectors.”

Ms. Traina said she felt bullied throughout the process. The online petition that gathered support for the appeal, which called the project a "mega-mansion," attacked her family personally, she said, a claim to which Ms. Caufield visibly objected. 

While many speakers supported the sentiment that the appeal was discriminatory, others said those arguments distracted from the substance of the complaints. 

In their closing remarks, supervisors urged the community to keep dialogue civil and to be wary of the tendency for social media to lead to mean-spiritedness. 

“Ultimately, this is not about the size of anyone’s house,” Supervisor Kate Sears said. “This is about how we treat one another and come together, and that’s crucial not only for our county but for our culture nationwide.” 

As approved on Tuesday, the plans for Moonrise Kingdom include the legalization and restoration of three cabins built by the late Howard Waite, which are considered important examples of 1960s hippie modernism. These include the 1,610-square-foot Windmill, a 32-foot-tall structure; an 870-square-foot barn, which Supervisor Rodoni suggested converting to the second unit; and a 1,146-square-foot cabin known as Howard’s House. 

Each will now be restored, though some commentators asked if the Trainas had consulted the state office of historic preservation for instruction about just how to preserve them. 

“How can you throw around words like “restore” and “preserve”? There are standards for these types of things,” implored former Tomales resident Victoria Hanson. 

Sean Kennings, the Trainas’ project manager, explained after the meeting that they submitted “the evaluation required by the county for architectural and cultural significance” in the coastal permit application. (Hypothetically, if they were tearing down structures, they may have had to do a deeper evaluation of the architectural significance, as would have been required by the California Environmental Quality Act.) 

The Windmill, which was targeted in the association’s appeals, will not lose height under Tuesday’s ruling. To reduce its visual impact, however, it can have no exterior lights, interior lighting that is visible from the outside, or reflective surfaces. (One person who spoke in favor of the project on Tuesday, Helene Wright, pointed out that the only neighbors who could see the development was her family.)

The historical and cultural significance of the Waite cabins was also questioned by some supervisors and speakers on Tuesday, despite testimony by an architect. Greg Castillo, an associate professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, recently curated a show that prominently featured a photograph of Howard’s Cabin. He spoke in June and again on Tuesday about the considerable significance of Mr. Waite’s designs and their cultural legacy. 

As for the proposed home, the Trainas originally planned for a floor area of 3,993 square feet. Now, the home will be under 2,000 square feet. But they pulled their proposal for the residence on Tuesday, saying they would resubmit plans once they redesigned it to meet the new size cap. 

Mr. Traina, who bought the property with his wife in 2013, said making that concession was not easy. “This was not a hasty project, and obviously what we have proposed was what we felt was appropriate to the area,” he said. “After so many rounds of this, reducing the square footage for the residence for our family by half is a significant concession.”

Ms. Traina said the difficult path to permit approval sent a signal to developers and homeowners that they were unwelcome in Marin.  

“We bought [the property] to inspire our young children, with the tall bishop pines, soaring hawks, glorious sunrises and intriguing architecture—a safe nest, far away from city life, and an endless feast for childhood. That was over 1,500 days ago and we have yet to spend a single night,” she said. “We didn’t come here feeling different but we were made to feel very different, very unwelcomed, very threatened and relentlessly bullied.” 

Indeed, that feeling was highlighted in a recent grand jury report on county-specific barriers to affordable housing, which said developers routinely report that they do not try to build housing in Marin due to vocal citizen complaints to new development as well as a notoriously inefficient planning process. 

Other aspects of the project will also go forward, including fixing a mapping error for the zoning of one of the property’s two parcels.