Dennis Rodoni has deep roots in West Marin. His maternal grandparents, the Blooms, ranched in Olema. His paternal grandparents moved to Point Reyes Station in 1925 and bought the Western Saloon, and his father drove a milk truck for Toby's Feed Barn.
Mr. Rodoni, who lives in Olema, has further embedded himself in this stretch of coast. After attending college in Chico, where he majored in economics; a two-and-a-half-year teaching stint in Australia, where he met his wife, Judy; and a brief teaching job in Geyserville, he eventually started Rodoni Construction in 1981, which caters almost exclusively to West Marin. The list of boards and committees he has served on is extensive: the Point Reyes Station Village Association, the Coastal Health Alliance, West Marin Senior Services, the Tomales Bay Association, the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, the GGNRA PRNS Citizens Advisory Council. As a board member of the North Marin Water District, he has served as the de facto West Marin representative for 21 years.
Mr. Rodoni has had supervisorial ambitions before; in 2004, he challenged incumbent Steve Kinsey, who won the seat. But Mr. Rodoni, who speaks quickly yet gently, has continued to rack up experience since that time. On Friday he sat down with the Light to talk about his community work, affordable housing, transportation, ranching and more.
Point Reyes Light: You have served on the boards and committees of quite a number of nonprofits.
Dennis Rodoni: I've been very involved in the nonprofit community. I spent many years on the Coastal Health Alliance board. I was chair two or three years, and pro-bono managed their last expansion, when they added rooms and bathrooms and made it a little more livable. [The health alliance is] a very important element of our community.
At West Marin Senior Services, I was chair of a committee that was asked to find an assisted living facility in West Marin. In 24 months our committee came up with a facility and a program where six people were housed. After that we were given a huge donation in the form of a house in Inverness, by Lillian Stockstill, who believed so much in the program that she gave her property to us. We sold it because the site was not that suitable and purchased the structure we have now, which serves eight people. [The organization is] so, so important. In my campaign [senior issues are] going to be really important. You hear things about aging in place; the truth of the matter is the whole county is aging like West Marin, just a little bit slower.
I also was on the board of the Tomales Bay Association and ended up being a chairman there. I was very honored to receive an award from them—the Adeline Arndt watershed award, which is named after my aunt. It's so meaningful to get an award that your relative is named for. She was my inspiration for working on the Giacomini Wetlands [when I chaired the Point Reyes National Seashore Association board]. She was one of the close neighbors to the wetlands; when we were kids, she used to tell us that one day it would return to a wetland. My aunt worked all her life to make sure that happened. And she was really instrumental with coho in the stream. She, John and Anne West and Leo Cronin were the people who got Marin Municipal Water District to release one cubic foot per second over the dam at all times, so there was always water running through the streams. That was one of the first landmark water release requirements. It later led to the ‘95 decision [in which] Marin Municipal is forever responsible for releasing water at certain points along the creek.
The [wetlands] project was particularly meaningful. The [Point Reyes National Seashore Association] raised $6.5 million in funds for the restoration, which was an amazing task. An amazing group of people came together. It was not a park project; it was a nonprofit project. We were able to do it quicker and we were able to put more money on the ground. The park was intimately involved, they just weren't paying for it. It was a very successful project. Service to community has always been important to me.
Light: Maybe you could talk about why you decided to run in 2004, when you challenged Steve Kinsey.
Rodoni: I would be the first to say that Steve has done a great job. When I ran in 2004, it was more of the right time for me to do it in my life. I was 52 at that point. It was really a mistake [in calculation] on my part: I forgot about the challenge of having an incumbent, and that proved true. He did a lot of work to get where he was and I hadn't done enough yet at that point.
Light: Were there particular issues?
Rodoni: I think I was one of the only people at the time talking about pensions. I was very much talking about transportation over the hill. In fact, I started a proposition for Marin which would've been a quarter-cent sales tax to support the Golden Gate bus system to provide service within Marin. I thought that was a better alternative at the time to starting our own bus system or the SMART train. I am perfectly happy with the Marin Transit group and what they're doing. And the Stagecoach is a wonderful addition to West Marin. I hope we can keep the ridership up. My early goals will be looking to take that into Petaluma and maybe making a loop into other transportation like Golden Gate [Transit] or the SMART train, because that's one thing we don't have a direct link to.
My main goal in traffic is to not make traffic worse. I think we need to ask that question about everything we talk about. If we think we're going to make it better we have to understand all of the unintended consequences that might come up. For the East side, it's really the Sir Francis Drake/I-580 corridor. In my mind, all the supervisors need to go to Sacramento and say, “We want this to happen.”
Light: Speaking of traffic, there have been significant traffic jams in West Marin, particularly on holiday weekends.
Rodoni: It's a unique situation because we're getting inundated with tourist traffic on the weekends. My response as supervisor is to make sure health and safety responses are appropriate during those weekends. I would sit down with Sheriff [Bob] Doyle, Fire Chief Jason Weber, the park service, police and the volunteer fire chiefs and say, “Okay, five or six or 10 weekends a year, we are going to have a problem. How do we reposition our resources so we can make reasonable responses to emergencies, fires, accidents?” For instance, maybe we could spread resources around, such as having volunteer fire departments manned by the county during those weekends.
My worst fear is that one of our constituents has a heart attack in Inverness, and we can’t get them to the helicopter on the beach because we can't get the ambulance there. We also need to get [traffic control] officers on stop signs to help people when it's appropriate. It's not adding costs, just reallocating officers and resources so we can move traffic when appropriate. That happens in Stinson sometimes, and it works really well. We also need the parks system engaged. Many times [during non-summer months], they have reduced staff. They need to recognize busy weekends and bring back staff to summer levels on those weekends. That's a no-brainer
As far as the rest of it, I think each individual village needs to have a conversation about what's appropriate for them. Sometimes we have multiple events in a community and the problem is worse. I think we need to schedule [events] so we don't have multiple events going on at the same time on busy weekends.
One thing I learned when I got involved in politics is that the bureaucratic process works very slow, and even the most sensible and smart thing you think of takes a long time to get to fruition because you have multiple minds thinking about it. A lot of my ideas sound like simple sells, but they'll take a lot of work, and I'm willing to put that work in.
For example, when I first got on the water board, there were three [areas that were billed separately]. They were added at different times to the water district, and there is a policy that [the district] would always keep the books separate. Well, in West Marin there are 750 people in three separate accounting districts; it didn't make sense. It took me almost four years working for the district and finally forming a committee of West Marin people that said, “This is really okay [to combine them].” There were some cost impacts, some customers got a better buy and some a little worse, but at the end of the day the community said, “We’re fine with that.”
I also focused on improving infrastructure in West Marin because it was in dire need of it. Being thought of as the West Marin representative, I was able to bring that to the table. I like to spend money wisely and I'm thought of as a fiscal conservative on the board because I want to make sure we get good value. I’ll bring that same sentiment to the Board of Supervisors.
The other thing I'm proud of at the water district is that in my 20-plus years, we went from “Don't fix it, repair it” to rebuilding and replacing infrastructure. We spent over $3.5 million in 20 years out here, for around 750 customers. But we have new storage tanks and more water storage. We have improved pump stations for firefighting and improved pipelines for serving customers. We have a pipeline to reduce the salinity intrusion—and that part of the puzzle came free. I encouraged staff to have an environmental document on the shelf for that project. They found money from the state and because we had the document sitting on the shelf, we got $1,500,000 out of the water bond for that project. So out of the $3.5 million, customers only paid for $2 million. I'm very, very proud of that.
Light: Switching gears, what is your position on ranching?
Rodoni: I'm 1,000 percent for ranching in the park and elsewhere in the county. Part of the fabric of Marin is agriculture. I'm very much in favor of 20-year leases [in the Point Reyes National Seashore]. I understand that a couple of things have to happen. The ranch management plan needs to get done. I think the park probably needs to do the environmental documents to pacify the suits because, quite honestly, I think it's a waste of time spending money in court fighting things like that. I think you're better off spending the money just doing the documents. You may win this suit, but it doesn't mean someone else isn't going to sue next week for the same thing. And I hate spending good money that could go to things other than lawyers. It doesn't make sense.
Light: General management plans can take years. Even an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment on ranching could take years. They can't issue 20-year leases or let them diversify during that time.
Rodoni: I think you're right: a general management plan would take a long time. I think they need to get the ranch management plan done and issue 20-year leases. That's the format for the future, I believe. A lot of elements will be discussed—diversity, in particular. Some may be inappropriate and some very appropriate and that's part of the economic viability we talk about. I'm worried that if we wait for the general plan, it will get to the point where there's too much stress on the ranching community.
Light: But that's what the lawsuit is saying: you must do a general management plan before you do a ranching plan.
Rodoni: That’s where they need to sit down with a judge and work it out. That's where it could be helpful to figure out a path forward. Some of them have no leases now, and don't know whether to fix their fences or improve anything. They need something concrete. I think the law is clear that the ranches are meant to stay here, and it's very clear what [former Secretary of the Interior Ken] Salazar said.
Light: Some people have said that Congressman Jared Huffman should introduce legislation to ensure that ranching will continue in the seashore. Do you support legislative intervention?
Rodoni: I think [the law] is very clear, but anything that Jared can do to help the situation would be beneficial. I was here when they purchased those ranches. It was clear that the intent was that ranching would stay here. What wasn't clear is how they would do that in terms of economics. I think the pressure is economic more than any other thing we’re talking about. You can have a long lease, but if you can't make money, it's not going to work.
Light: If you were elected supervisor, are there particular initiatives you would pursue to support ranching in the county?
Rodoni: Consider what is appropriate diversity. I don't think there is one answer for every [ranch]. Another thing I want to do is reinstate the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes Seashore [Citizens] Advisory Council. It was a volunteer sounding board where the public could vent, from planning issues to environmental documents. It had a good process and worked well for a number of years. It was defunded when Republicans took over Congress and it's never been brought back. The first thing I would do is talk to Jared and local representatives who know about it and push the government to bring it back. I'm also willing for the county to bring something back.
I was on that commission for five years. At that point, we had five people from West Marin on it, out of 18 total. That was a really big advantage because we were able to interface with the park and the ranchers; that's the kind of interaction I would bring back. If I get the support of the federal government, perfect; if not I will try to get the support of all the supervisors to bring something similar back. G.G.N.R.A. has all kinds of issues in the southern part of my district, in Muir Woods and Muir Beach. It’s an avenue for people to come before you in public and speak to the park. And sometimes maybe say things that aren’t very nice, but it's easier to say it to an independent board than to management.
Light: What kind of issues were you tackling while you were on the commission?
Rodoni: Locally we worked with the McClures when they were building their new holding barn to reduce cow waste. It was a big project and they invested over $1 million in that project. And it's a visible project; when you drive out there you see the barn, so there was a lot of conflict. But at the commission, we were able to massage that a little bit and work with management and it became acceptable and [the ranch] was willing to make the investment. Now we have a much better situation out there.
We also worked on the Rancho Baulines issue, when they were converting the ranch potentially to a visitor center. The community didn't want that to happen, and so we sat with a group of people and worked out details to where it became a private home for park officials.
My campaign is open government and open communication. I have a great reputation with the environmental community, a great reputation with the ranching community. My grandparents were ranchers here, across the street [from my home in Olema]. And I have a great reputation with park people. I was chair of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association during the Giacomini Wetlands project. I think I can still open many doors.
Light: Affordable housing is another big issue.
Rodoni: I'm very much in agreement with the new county strategy. I think grabbing homes for sale and reselling them to affordable families like CLAM did in Inverness is the way to do it. I agree with the county that we should look at second units; I think second-unit policy needs to be examined. We all thought it was the answer to affordable housing and it never did work out that way. We need to reappraise what's wrong with it.
I think I'm in a unique position, being a contractor and a politician. I'm on both sides of the problem. [For example, North Marin has] a huge water fee for a second unit. It's like $10,000, or one-third of the normal fee, which is astronomical but it’s based on a lot of calculation. But on the other side, I'm building [second units] and they are expensive to build. We’re building units that no one could afford to rent affordably. If we’re really serious, we have to incentivize people to build affordable second units by reducing or eliminating county fees. We have to work with water districts and the [county] to get them to eliminate or reduce fees.
We also have to look at building itself. I think county building codes could be changed to reduce cost. For example, if you bring in a pre-manufactured home from Santa Rosa for a second unit, you don't need to have fire sprinklers in it because it's inspected by the state. But it meets health and safety codes. If you build a second unit in Marin, you have to put fire sprinklers in and possibly upgrade your water meter for another cost. It's a rolling thing.
Another thing I think we should be able to do is, say, if you rent your second unit as affordable, it's worth less. So you should pay less property tax for as long as you have it in affordable housing. I would like to work on that element. [So] it's a combination of things. But if we’re serious, we need to do them all. I have a job right now where a lady has over $100,000 in soft costs for a second unit before we put anything on the ground. Professional fees, engineering fees, civil fees, surveying fees, county fees, water district fees. [Environmental Health Services] has another fee.
You know what the question is going to be: all these departments you take these [fees] away from are self-supporting. The fees generate the budget. My argument is, why can't we use some of the affordable housing fees to backstop the department fees? I think that's an appropriate use of affordable housing money. Like I said, I've been part of the problem, so to speak, but at least I have ideas and solutions to bring to the table.
[The water district] has a program in Novato that I'm very proud of because part of it was my suggestion. We do silent [second mortgages] and help [employees] buy homes in the district. We've gone from four employees living in the district 15 years ago to over 14 now. What you do is provide a second mortgage—it's called a silent second because you don't have to pay a monthly mortgage fee—and you share the equity if you ever sell the home. Prices of homes are so high in Novato that a lot of employees were going to Petaluma and Santa Rosa. With the silent seconds, we reversed that. And we would share appreciation if they ever sold it. I think eight or so have taken advantage of it, and some have purchased back the second mortgage. So we've been able to roll that program over and use the same $2 million investment multiple times.
Light: Out here a lot of discussion has turned to Airbnbs. Should the county regulate them and, if so, how?
Rodoni: You know, I think that's a tough issue. They're doing a service to our residents and visitors, and we don't have any big hotels or high-rises because of that. We need to be able to provide something to the people visiting us. The alternatives to B&Bs might not be very environmentally friendly or desirable. We have to always remember that.
The other thing is that it's really hard to reverse a trend and take something away from someone. So I think, again, incentivizing people to not go to B&Bs would be an appropriate way to approach it. In the B&B market, there's a transition of people in and out of B&B because it’s a hard business. People often do it for a while and then decide it's not for them. They sell or put it back into a rental. So there's always a transition going on all the time, and I think that's important to understand. I don't know if there's enough data to show they are increasing. I want [more information on them].
Light: I think people see a difference between registered B&Bs and homes that no one else lives in except visitors.
Rodoni: Well, isn't that a function of society? Of social media and the easiness of doing that? I don't know how you separate the two if you're doing an ordinance.
B&Bs are a very important aspect of our community because it's people’s income that we’re talking about. That's how they make their living. I think we need to remember that when we talk about regulating, too. Sure, maybe it's taking housing away, but it's also providing employment for somebody and they're able to stay here. So there are a lot of tradeoffs in that discussion.
Light: What are other issues that you may pursue?
Rodoni: I think that one of the ways I differ from the current Board of Supervisors is that I would have voted for Laura's law [which in certain situations can allow a court to require outpatient treatment for people with mental illnesses]. I have a hard time thinking we are one of the wealthiest counties in the country and we can't spend some money just to help one person. I think that needs to come back or be reconsidered. Part of the [county] presentation [for the Board of Supervisors last month] was that someone at the county somehow calculated that only 15 people would benefit. But I think there's that many people in Bolinas who could qualify. The real risk is that some tragedy happens because we didn't treat someone. When the family identifies [a mental illness] and you can't get the person to agree [to treatment], what are you going to do? I think it's important to revisit that.