Wade Holland: Reflecting on a West Marin career

Courtesy of Wade Holland
PEOPLE: Wade Holland is stepping down from his post as planning commissioner for District 4. “I don’t think I ever cast a vote that was really a disaster,” said Mr. Holland, a longtime Inverness resident. “I’ve always been able to bring the commission to the way that I wanted it to come out.”  

The year 2017 will have a momentous start for Inverness resident Wade Holland. In January he expects to walk out of his oculist’s office with a new prosthetic right eyeball—the result of a tumor he had three years ago—and in March he’ll turn 81. And in February, he’ll step down from his county position as planning commissioner for District 4, an appointment he’s held since 2004. 

As a commissioner, Mr. Holland often heard appeals from residents facing challenges to their development plans, but his favorite part of the job was devising policy. He decided to step down from the position a year ago—before his appointer, Steve Kinsey, announced his own plan to retire from the Board of Supervisors. 

As he looks back to his 13 years on the commission, Mr. Holland says he never had a confrontation with anybody over anything. “People are pretty laid back out here,” he said. “I’m sure there are people who think I’m a big jerk or something, but that’s okay. They haven’t said it to my face.”

Originally from Los Angeles, Mr. Holland was introduced to Inverness through a friend while he was at an Army language school in Monterey. I met him this week at his home in Inverness, which he purchased with his wife and another couple in 1970. We discussed his influence in Inverness, his unexpected summons to the Planning Commission, what is getting in the way of Marin’s Local Coastal Plan update and his record of guiding the commission toward his view when it came to District 4 issues.


Silas Valentino: Your first serious career job, after graduating with a degree in political science, was at the Rand Corporation [a global policy think tank]. The research you guys were doing was on Soviet computer technology.


Wade Holland: I got out of the [military], where I had learned Russian. Eventually I got to the point where I was sort of the foremost authority in the United States—outside the C.I.A.—on Soviet computer technology. If you wanted to know about it, you came to me. 


Silas: Were you surprised to see the recent Russian hacking news?


Wade: You get kids in Ukraine, Poland and Romania who are hacking the Pentagon! [Back then,] people would talk about computers in the home: what could they do? Well, your wife could keep track of her recipes on a computer. The things we use the computer for now, with online applications, had never occurred to anybody. 


Silas: Your introduction to local politics came when you ran for a seat on the Inverness Public Utility District board in 1975. What compelled you? 


Wade: It was a way to become involved. I was a political science major, so it was natural I’d gravitate in that direction. And I [eventually] became general manager [of IPUD], and then retired in 2001.


Silas: One thing I found interesting about your time as general manager was in 1990, when you objected to a windmill proposal. 


Wade: There was a proposal to do commercial wind energy. At that time, we had one director who pushed for it and some friends who were involved in this sort of thing. And they wanted us to do it. There were several problems: for one, the windmills would have had to have been in the Point Reyes National Seashore to get any wind—and that wasn’t going to happen. They thought they could put them up in Bodega, but that was outside the district. And there was something in state law that said if a district like ours generated electricity, we couldn’t sell more than some percentage outside our district, like 20 percent. It was one of those mini-flaps that come up every once in a while. 


Silas: In 2003, when you were secretary for the Inverness Association, you pushed for the installation of the median in downtown Inverness. 


Wade: Yes, I organized that. Over a period of decades, every few years the Inverness Association would complain to the county about people speeding through town, and the county would tell them to go to the California Highway Patrol. So C.H.P. would send a car out Tuesday mornings for four weeks and nail speeders–all whom were local residents. They said, “That was not what we meant!” (Laughs.) So finally Steve Kinsey suggested we talk to our own Department of Public Works, who told us about traffic calming possibilities. And we said, “We can do this.” 

We did a mockup for about a year, where we painted an island in the street to see if it would work, and it seemed to work pretty well. We did a big fundraising campaign and got people like Lunny Grading & Paving to do the work at cost and then we organized a vote. We had an actual plebiscite on it! If you had P.O. box and lived or worked in Inverness, we sent you a ballot. It had ballot arguments on it and so on, and we won quite substantially. We built it and I think it’s been a great thing. And I love the fact that it has all native plants and the garden club maintain it. The median was one of my pride [projects]. I took charge and said, “Okay, I’m going to make this happen.”


Silas: And now you get to drive by it every day–slowly! What other accomplishments are you proud of?


Wade: Well, the whole front of Inverness Elementary School was something the Inverness Association did in conjunction with D.P.W. and the school. And the state architect, because they’re in charge of school design. It was a very difficult spot [for the school]. It was a bad situation. It’s not ideal, but it’s a lot better than it used to be.


Silas: What led you to become a planning commissioner after retiring from IPUD in 2001?


Wade: On New Year’s weekend in 2004 I got this bizarre phone call from Steve Kinsey. I knew Steve, but not well. My wife and I were just going out to dinner somewhere and the phone rang and she said it was Steve Kinsey. He started in on this sort of hesitant explanation that his man on the Planning Commission [Ross Herbertson] had submitted his resignation. He had been on for seven years. The Planning Commission was going to be starting in February with the first workshop meetings on the new Countywide Plan. The schedule had come out and called for weekly meetings starting at 10:30 in the morning and going until dark. His planning commissioner then had kids in high school and he said it was time for him to step down. Steve needed to find somebody, and it occurred to me during the call that he had somebody in mind and he wanted to vet them. I’m running through my mind: who do I know that I could speak about authoritatively that he would consider appointing? And finally he asked if I was interested. That had not occurred to me at all. I was just dumbfounded. 


Silas: Did you spend time thinking about it?


Wade: I did and I thought, ‘Well, what the heck.’ I was looking for something else to do and this had some “prestige” to it.


Silas: How did you prepare for it?


Wade: The second meeting I went to was when we started on the Countywide Plan, so it was sink or swim. Boy, it was right into the cauldron. It was a groundbreaking plan. It was the first county plan in the state that dealt head-on with things like climate change, sea-level rise and global warming. At the same time, Jerry Brown’s office was sending out letters to cities and counties who were coming up with new general plans that ignored these subjects. [The governor’s office] said they would sue if they couldn’t do better than that. And so we were nervous and when a draft of ours got posted, the governor’s office said, go look at what Marin County is doing! They understand it. We were out in front. The 2007 Countywide Plan won awards, but it was a complete and total rewrite. They’re scheduled to update it in 2017, but it won’t be a big overhaul. Just refinements and what we got wrong last time.


Silas: What needs to be fixed?


Wade: Streamside and wetlands issues—San Geronimo Valley things. That’s still hanging fire and a lot of the programs had time frames on them that have proven to be unrealistic. Those are the two hot ones because they’ve been in and out of court so often. But it’s not going to be me: I will be gone. I’m not going through this again.

As a commissioner, I have liked the policy part better than the quasi-judicial part—that’s where you have an appeal of an administrative or deputy zoning administrator decision. A project comes to you by appeal and you have to say yes or no. And then you can get an appeal to the Board of Supervisors. I don’t like having to tell people, “Yes, you can” or “No, you can’t” build your house. I’m uncomfortable with that. I’m a very progressive person, but there’s a little bit of libertarian in there. Your property, your money—do what you want. I look at some the houses in Inverness that don’t look right; they’re really out of character. But they’ve been there forever! And they didn’t hurt anything. We’d never let them do it today.


Silas: What are your thoughts on the Moonrise Kingdom project?


Wade: I can’t go into details because, unfortunately, it looks like I’m going to have to still be on the commission for the hearing, since we stay on until a successor is appointed. Our terms end on Jan. 31 or when a successor is appointed, whichever comes later. I’ve actually talked to Dennis [Rodoni]: I told him, “If you want to somehow get the board schedule changed so that you can appoint your person ahead of that time, it’s fine with me.” But it would sort of be unfair for a brand-new person, on their very first meeting, to have to take that one on. 

I’ve heard from several people that Dennis has asked a lot of people if they’d be interested. Some of them have come to me just to find out what the position involves. 


Silas: What does it involve?


Wade: I’ve always felt that it was my obligation to go into every meeting fully prepared, and I think I have a reputation for being prepared. I’ve done my reading and sight visits. I think the Fourth District has had a string of people who took it seriously and did their homework. A successor to me, I hope, will follow that same pattern. 


Silas: Did you have an overarching philosophy or attitude about how to balance community character with the rights of property owners?


Wade: I said once in a Planning Commission meeting that you have to assume, going in, that what the applicant wants to do is the right thing to do. And it’s up to us and the staff to prove them wrong. If it’s on the line and you’re not sure which way to go, always fall on the side of the applicant. Two commissioners afterwards said, “Oh no. Absolutely not. We have to assume that they’re wrong and they’ve got to prove themselves.” I think no way, not for me. 


Silas: What were some of the more controversial projects you saw?


Wade: Actually none of them were in West Marin. That’s part of what we’re proud of. Nothing bad has happened in West Marin in decades. 


Silas: The SMART Train doesn’t run through West Marin…


Wade: And there’s no freeway or golf courses! Ag has had a tough road to hoe, but there has been no conversion of ag properties or something dreadful. 


Silas: The Local Coastal Plan update is still going on today, after eight years. Tell me about your introduction to rewriting the plan.


Wade: It was just so obvious that it had to be redone because it was 30 years old! And to think that in 2008 we’d still be sweating it and going into 2017: it’s just unfathomable. L.C.P.s were supposed to be the demonstration of a new way to do countywide planning. The [California Coastal Commission] staff and our staff would work together collaboratively and understand what the problems were and work them out early so this wouldn’t occur. It hasn’t worked.


Silas: What is causing the stalemate?


Wade: The coastal commission has a staff that is… too strict in the way they interpret the Coastal Act. I think they’re trying, in some cases, to use our L.C.P. to create a precedent, and in some ways rewrite the Coastal Act. If they can get some things into this L.C.P. then they can use that in the future for other counties. If this is what happened in Marin, then that’s what you all have to do. 


Silas: Which will happen first: the L.C.P. gets finalized or your 5-year-old granddaughter graduates from high school?


Wade: (Laughs.) Well I certainly won’t be alive for her graduation from high school. But I am hoping I’ll still be around when the L.C.P. gets completed. 


Silas: Locals who live in hazardous areas have voiced concerns about the L.C.P. Residents in Stinson Beach, Marshall and other areas vulnerable to sea-level rise feel there’s no way to affordably preserve their homes. 


Wade: I was really impressed with the coastal commission meeting [at Half Moon Bay in November]. Typically, public testimony is not very informative. I was impressed with the level of public testimony from people in Marshall and especially in Stinson Beach; they were prepared, had facts and it wasn’t just a lot of “I don’t like what you’re doing.” You could see that a lot of the things they said resonated and got through to the commissioners. I think it was one of the most effective examples of public testimony I’ve ever seen at the recent coastal commission meeting. 


Silas: Did you personally make any contributions to the current draft?


Wade: I was the first one to propose inter-generational housing. I put that on the table to begin with. The coastal commission staff just went berserk over it: “One ranch, one house. Period.” And we eventually got them to buy into it. Nobody else has it anywhere. It was a way to make it possible for another generation to stay on the ranch. It just makes sense to be able to have more than one family living on the ranch. 


Silas: What do you think about when you drive through West Marin and you see homes that are illegally developed?


Wade: What I’m getting at is earth tones. You can’t build anything in Main County unless the color scheme is earth toned. Crapola! What’s wrong with a white house? I just think there’s room for more variety. 


Silas: I came across this word and I didn’t know much about it: viewshed. 


Wade: (Laughs.) You hear it mostly about the coast. Your development cannot interfere with a public viewshed. The public view prominent in the neighborhood, typically the coast, is protected. That’s one of those things we grapple with sometimes. You can’t build a house that interferes with the viewshed. We had problems in Muir Beach, which is almost all conventional zoning, meaning if you satisfy the height limit and setbacks—that’s it. Here in Inverness we are almost all planned district zoning, so it has to go through design review. 

It’s one of those things that’s always argued before us. Typically, you have a person who comes in and they’re very upset because—“I’ve lived here for 40 years and there’s never been anything that’s interfered with my viewshed!” Well, your viewshed isn’t protected, I’m sorry. That’s their property; if they’re within the heights limit, there’s nothing we can do about it. We have to deal with this all the time. 

This is going to come up with Moonrise Kingdom because the existing “windmill” building is higher than the height limit and people say it can be seen from the Perth Trail that goes up to the Mount Vision parking lot. The deputy zoning administrator says you have to chop off the top of it and of course the applicant, I assume, doesn’t want to do that.


Silas: Did you ever cast a vote that you regretted?


Wade: I don’t think I ever cast a vote that was really a disaster. And at no time that I can think of has a project in the Fourth District been decided by the Planning Commission in the opposite way that I voted. I’ve always been able to bring the commission to the way that I wanted it to come out. I’ve lost votes on projects elsewhere in the county, or been on the short end of votes, but never in the Fourth District. I’ve always been able to convince the rest of the commission that what I thought was the right thing.

But there were two times where my vote and the commission’s vote was appealed and overturned by the supervisors, which means Steve. Which proves that Steve isn’t infallible. I mean, he did get it wrong both times.


Silas: What were the two instances?


Wade: In one case he got snookered by an appellant who did some sneaky things. And Steve didn’t really understand and didn’t get into it deeply enough to understand what was going on. But those things happen.