Update from Kate - Board of Supervisors Upholds Denial of Seminary Master Plan Extension

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Board of Supervisors Upholds Denial of Master Plan Extension

for Seminary Site Project

On Tuesday, December 12, the Board of Supervisors upheld an October 2017 decision by the Marin County Planning Commission not to extend the 1984 Master Plan for the former Golden Gate Baptist Seminary property in Strawberry. The current owners of the property, North Coast Land Holdings, had appealed the Planning Commission’s decision to the Board of Supervisors. The 33 year-old Master Plan will expire as of January 1, 2018.

The Board also upheld the Planning Commission’s decision to suspend further work on an environmental impact report (EIR) for the project application. Allowing the Master Plan to expire opens the door for North Coast Land Holdings to file a revised application for the site that includes a new Master Plan. For more information about these issues, you can view the Staff Report here.

I wanted to share with you the comments I made at the December 12 hearing, including my expectations for the way forward set forth at the end:

I know everyone in this room appreciates how special the Seminary property is and what an incredible opportunity there is to create a project that we can all be proud of.

Most of southern Marin is built out and this is the largest, single piece of property held by one owner – and an owner who is a long time Marin resident with deep roots in our county.

In February of 2014, at the time North Coast was considering whether to acquire this property, I convened a Strawberry visioning process which involved many months of meetings and a community-wide Open House. We created a visioning document that reflected positive aspirations for keeping what is cherished while at the same time asking what Strawberry needed to be an even better place for everyone, now and in the future.

We found out many things about Strawberry including the fact that its population -- of 5,393 people comprising 2,626 households -- is slightly older than the state average and that there has also recently been a notable increase in the numbers of young families moving into its neighborhoods.

In gathering community input, residents wished for many things to enhance their quality of life such as, among others,

  • inclusive systems for older adults and families with children;
  • affordable housing for the local workforce;
  • upgraded community and recreational facilities: and
  • safer streets with connected bike lanes and walking paths.

All of this resonates for me in considering the current status of the Seminary project and how to move forward.

Over the weekend, I watched the video of the Planning Commission’s hearing on October 30 -- over 4 hours of deliberations and testimony. Much of what was said then, has been said today as well.

It is clear that many people are concerned about the changes that have occurred since 1984 when the Master Plan was adopted.

Some people focus on the change in the number of homes that now surround the Seminary property. Other people focus on the dramatic increase in the number of people who work in Marin but cannot afford to live here.

Both of these changes – development in the Strawberry community and significant workforce commuting -- have made traffic intolerable on 101 and clogged our local intersections.

Depending upon your point of view, this leads one to argue (1) for approval of the extension of the Master Plan in order to maintain the property owner’s ability to seek to develop a higher number of housing units, or (2) for denial of the Master Plan extension in the hope that will reduce the intensity of the proposed project.

So while there’s controversy about what to do with the Master Plan, there are shared goals of addressing our traffic problems and also addressing our housing crisis. This is good.

The question is how to move forward in a productive way. For that to happen, I think we need to get real.

We need to get real with a project application that is clear about what the property owner would actually like to do on the property. There are clearly entitlements under the Master Plan that the property owner has no interest in – the chapel is an obvious example.

Responding to input from the public, North Coast also appears to be interested in a senior care facility of some sort. The Master Plan says nothing about that.

The property owner is interested in a school of some kind – which from all indications is really not like a seminary or like the Branson school. The project application needs to be clear – to get real – about exactly what is being proposed.

Does lifelong learning, such as the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, fit here somewhere? We don’t know.

What about a music conservatory as one speaker suggested? We don’t know if that’s a possibility and it certainly isn’t contemplated in the Master Plan.

And the property owner wants housing. There’s quite a bit of information in the application about housing, but there’s clearly room for more explanation of whether it includes the mix of housing that so many people have urged – senior housing, workforce housing, affordable housing, and single family homes too.

So we need to get a clearer, more specific sense of what North Coast is really proposing.

We also need to get real in terms of the conversations between the community and the applicant.

Everyone – the property owner, the Strawberry community groups, everyone who has gotten frustrated or leapt to a conclusion about the motives or character of someone else – needs to come out of their corners, stop trying to throw up roadblocks or maximize their perceived entitlements, be open to learning what a clarified, defined proposal means in terms of real, on the ground impacts, and be open to changing their minds.

What’s needed here, but what unfortunately has not occurred so far, is for everyone to engage in an honest conversation -- one based on data, not driven by fear -- about what’s possible on this property, what’s desirable for a variety of stakeholders, what will benefit the community now and in the future, and what the property owner needs.

We also we need to get real about data and the impacts of what really is being proposed. Traffic numbers generated by Robert Harrison at the request of Riley Hurd and the Seminary Neighbors Association raise concerns and questions that need to be fully and independently addressed through the environmental review process.

A traffic study that is conducted during the scope of an environmental review process includes not just the traffic generated by a proposed use but also the ways in which the project may be designed or changed to mitigate or reduce those impacts. We never had the benefit of seeing the complete Robert Harrison study or to see what, if any, changes or mitigations he may have suggested to address traffic impacts.

There’s also plenty of other data we need to get through the EIR process, including about drainage, circulation, etc.

To get real about the data, we need more clarity about the primary project and we also need input from the community and from North Coast about the project alternatives that should be considered and evaluated in the EIR process.

Several Planning Commissioners suggested looking at the property with a lens that “we can do better.” We can do better than simply building more single family homes. I think that’s right.

Several Commissioners also suggested taking a fresh approach unburdened by what has happened on the Seminary property over the last many decades. There may be wisdom in that suggestion.

To get this right, we need to come together with realistic expectations and guided by a spirit of compromise and collaboration.

I hold high expectations for what we can achieve if we all get real and work together.

So, I would affirm the Planning Commission’s actions and deny the North Coast Land Holdings appeal, offering these findings:

  • The 1984 Master Plan stated that it would expire on January 1, 2010.
  • Because none of the academic or student/faculty/staff units on the Seminary’s portion of the Master Plan was built, the applicant’s rights to those structures has not vested under the vesting standards of Marin County Code section 22.70.050.
  • The Master Plan is over 33 years old. Actions taken by the prior owner and the applicant seeking to extend the Master Plan, and the county’s actions approving two of those extension requests (providing an additional 8 years) are not sufficient to create a vested right to the unbuilt portions of the Master Plan.
  • The Planning Commission appropriately determined that any further work to prepare an Environmental Impact Report for the current proposed project (which is predicated on the basic framework of the 1984 Master Plan) is moot since the applicant will need to submit a new Master Plan application following the expiration of the 1984 Master Plan on January 1, 2018.

As for next steps, once the applicant resubmits the project with modifications, there will be opportunity for review and comment by public agencies, the Strawberry Design Review Board, and the public. There will be a new determination on the level of environmental review, and a new NOP – a Notice of Preparation – will be issued which signals the start of a rigorous analysis of environmental impacts and possible mitigations for the proposed project and also for project alternatives.

I ask that our Board direct staff to refer any appeal of the subsequent NOP to the Board of Supervisors for a final determination, consistent with Section X of the County’s Environmental Impact Review Guidelines.

I’d like to close by making clear what my expectations are for the way forward. By taking this action calling for North Coast to submit a new Master Plan application, I’m asking everyone, North Coast and the Strawberry community, to step up to a whole different way of engaging with one another.

I challenge all of us to open this window of opportunity with our minds firmly fixed on what we need to be a better, more future-ready community. That requires us to see this project with new eyes, to start afresh and rebuild trust where trust has broken down.

Building professionals have a mantra; they say all design is site specific. It drives what they do. Similarly, communities benefit from taking note of the context within which they find themselves.

Dramatic changes are taking place in the world around us. Rising seas with more frequent flooding are happening right here. The recent fires that devastated our neighbors to the north and those still being fought in Southern California have signaled that we live in changing times.

If we are wise, we are asking ourselves searching questions about whether the way we live in community now and the way we’ve always done things is the right, most community-enhancing approach for the challenges we face.

What happens at the Seminary property will be with us for a very long time. Does what we envision there meet current needs as well as those of the community that will be here in the future?

Let’s make sure we get it right.

If you have thoughts to share, please write to me at ksears@marincounty.org.