The Coastal Post - July 2000

Grand Jury Report:
Political Tampering Behind French
Ranch Development And Sewer Approvals

By Jim Scanlon

The Marin Civil Grand Jury's recently released report concluded, that the joint sewage system between the French Ranch Development and the Lagunitas School was manipulated to the interest of the developers. The report says it is still an open question as to how much the joint project cost the School and whether the school's need for a replacement system has been used as an excuse for the French Ranch large volume septic system to be constructed.

The report states that representatives of the Regional Water Quality Control Board ruled that Lagunitas school could have constructed a replacement of its failing septic system (failing from neglect) under resolution 84-12, but that French Ranch cold not, "... so someone within the County system decided to use ...the General Discharge Permit for both systems.

The report emphasized in bold type that it is vital to understand the importance and potential danger involved in this process for if county rules are not in place the process is virtually unregulated.

The Grand Jury asked the Regional Board for clarification after the Lagunitas School District was ordered to cease and desist using its sand filter septic system after a sewage spill shortly after it began operation. The contractor of the septic system wrote to the Environmental Health inspector that the system was being operated under authority of the Regional Board and the county had no jurisdiction.

The Regional Board said that it approved the waste water discharge only, and did not grant authority to build and operate it. The Grand Jury report said it had received no satisfactory answer as to how the system could have been constructed and operated for more than a year without receiving permits from Environmental Health.

The report states, " It smacks, at a minimum, of a breakdown in County government oversight and, at worst, of a political accommodation that allowed ignoring of the process without penalty"

The report criticizes the handling of the Cease and Desist order issued by Dave Mesagno (later fired by the county for alleged gender discrimination, etc.). Mesagno never rescinded his order which was ignored by the school board and its consultants, and the county to this day. "The Grand Jury finds it most troubling that there are no procedures in place to manage the issuance and management of... [such orders]... especially that such an order can be rescinded verbally and not reduced to writing"

The report does not mention the role of Supervisor Steve Kinsey who, as readers of the Coastal Post who have followed this story know, was intimately involved with the planning and execution of the joint septic system and the approval process for the French Ranch development.

Furthermore, the Grand Jury report stated in no uncertain terms that the general waste discharge permit issued by the State Board does not constitute a permit to construct either [the school's or the French Ranch] system. Both systems were built and are currently being operated illegally.

It is mind boggling to consider the legal implications of the Grand Jury's conclusion for the home owners who have purchased luxury homes from the French Ranch LLC. The prospect arises for multiple law suits. Marin County Open Space has been unable to accept title to the 365 acres from the French Ranch because of a law suit claiming adjoining property owners who are alleging the developer promised easements to a ridge line road. Deeding the 365 acres of open space was required for county approvals of the multi-million dollar luxury development.

The County of Marin assumed responsibility as the "public entity" for ensuring the supervision of the construction of the waste water systems. The Coastal Post has pointed out numerous times that the county has assumed responsibility for supervising systems that County codes prohibit.

Marin County officials have attempted to deal with the incredible mess they have gotten themselves into by getting rid of the two dissidents in Environmental Health, Dave Mesagno and Ed Stewart accusing them of an array of charges including gender discrimination, sexual harassment creating a hostile environment in the workplace etc., over a period of at least ten years.

Except for the Coastal Post, there has been minimal press coverage of the controversy. It remains to be seen how the county responds to the scathing criticisms of the Grand Jury.

The report of the Jury's investigation "The Failure of Management of the environmental Health Services Division of the Community Development Agency-A Crisis for Marin" was made public Friday June 23, 2000. It consists of 87 pages and is highly critical of top county officials and the Board of Supervisors for failing to provide effective management and oversight. At press time, the report was not posted on the Grand Jury's web page but it should be available at:

http://grandjury.marin.org/1999gj/index.html

Besides conducting its own intensive investigation the Grand Jury contracted for an outside professional audit by Harvey M Rose Accountancy Corporation, specialists in County Government matters, to audit Environmental Health and CDA. Findings of the Grand Jury

Most importantly by far, the Grand Jury recommends a moratorium on additional septic systems for individual homes and large flow systems until a comprehensive watershed management plan is developed identifying all impacts on all watersheds that are, or could be used for onsite wastewater disposal, and until an understanding is reached with the Regional Water Quality Control Board for the County to take complete control of all permits and supervision of wastewater disposal systems. This is vital for the protection of public and environmental health and safety.

Reports 1) Inventory of Individual Sewage Disposal Systems. That an up to date inventory of individual septic systems be made as it is estimated that there is no record of over 50% of the systems in existence.

2) Reorganization of Environmental Health. Environmental Health was removed from Health and Human Services seven years ago and placed within the Community Development Agency, a move that was to have saved millions of dollars. The Grand Jury notes that these hoped-for saving and efficiencies have not taken place-quite the contrary-and recommended that if savings cannot be accomplished that Environmental Health be returned under Health and Human Services.

3) Disposal of Septic and Chemical Toilet Wastes. That the county more closely inspect commercial haulers of human waste and that their records be examined to locate frequent users as possible sources of failed systems.

4) County Council Costs: That costs for legal services from County Council be tracked so as to avoid charging these services to the General Fund.

5) Operation of Land Use Unit. The county should act immediately to fill uncovered positions in Land Use Unit (Environmental Health) and increase funding for training.

6) Environmental Health Trust Account: Clarify the status of the Environmental Health Services Trust Account.

7) Monitor Septic Systems and Future Growth. The Jury found that Environmental Health is not complying with its own regulations to inspect septic systems every two years and resolve complaints within a reasonable time.

8) Permitting the French Ranch LLC and Lagunitas School District Wastewater Treatment and Disposal Systems; Presented its report as an example of the failure of County officials to lead, oversee and manage the various components. The report states these shortcomings have created confusion among county agencies and staff and the public is no less confused.

9) An Unresolved Conflict between the Bolinas Community Public Utilities District and Environmental Health. Another example of conflict between interpretations of state and local rules and the controversy over which standard to use for irrigating the playing field on Bolinas Mesa. This was another case where political pressure was placed on Environmental Health to permit the use of water from an illegally excavated well, later found to be contaminated. A permit was issued by the CDA Director himself over the objection of and without the knowledge of Environmental Health. The water is not now being used.

10) The Rancho Nicasio Restaurant: An Example of he Inflexibility of Environmental Health. This is a case in which Environmental Health would not issue a food service permit upon change of ownership of the restaurant until the septic system was upgraded. (The Grand Jury does not mention that Mesagno the inspector required that the water system also be upgraded.) This would have meant hardship on the new owner who would have to wait six months until the beginning of the dry season to begin construction. The matter was resolved through negotiations between lawyers, the food permit was issued and the septic system later upgraded. Two months later at least twelve people became ill after dining or drinking at the restaurant. The well water and storage system were reportedly contaminated and safe water was trucked in. Several of those affected are reportedly taking legal action.

11) The Strauss Family Creamery: An Environmental Health Permitting Process Gone Wrong. The Grand Jury presents this case as an example of the lack of direction of county agencies in assisting a business owner to obtain necessary permits. The Strauss Family took over a building on property formerly owned by the Synanon Foundation. The building and it's water supply were both permitted by Synanon however this led to disagreement with county agencies. The Jury felt that there was no rational process by which the Strauss's could obtain operating permits.

Note; the Coastal Post recommends that the Grand Jury report be thoroughly examined by interested persons. It deals with complex intricate problems in government and conflict between persons with powerful economic interests and public health" It needs to be studied carefully. It has great potential for positive change but it will certainly be resisted, distorted and co-opted.

This Grand Jury has worked hard on complex difficult, politically charged problems and the public owes them respect and gratitude

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