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September 2001

Locals Drive Off Coptic Pope; No Blessing

By Elena Belsky

West Marin is prime agriculture land, and protected by various, special Coastal, Agriculture, and Recreational zones under the Countywide Plan. With the escalating property prices, preserved agriculture land and open spaces are under siege by development of all kinds. Most people don't realize that re-zoning of a parcel for development is only three votes of the Supervisors away, at any given meeting.

Protection of Marin's agricultural and coastal zoning is only as strong as our five elected supervisors commitment to preservation of west Marin's rural character. It has become a constant challenge for citizens, ranchers, and environmental groups who oppose encroaching development, the breaking of the agricultural zoning, and inappropriate use of the land. While this irregular collaboration of advocates has been fairly effective, the County of Marin seems willing to entertain remarkably out of the ordinary development plans.

One such unusual development has submitted a pre-application to the Planning Department: a proposal for a large Monastery complex on 464 acres of the Christopher Ranch in Dillon Beach, which is zoned C-APZ-60 (Coastal-Agricultural Production Zone with 1 unit every 60 acres). The developers, San Bernardino based St. Anthony Monastery who are affiliated with the Egyptian Coptic Church, have proposed to build a 20-30,000 square foot complex, which would include a religious retreat, residences, a temple with a 40 foot high cross on top (placement on the land would make it unavoidable to the eye throughout Dillon Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore, upper Tomales Bay, and the Pacific Ocean), a commercial print shop, and a retail store. According to Father Antonius St. Anthony, the facility would offer weekly services, and hold twice yearly retreats with followers attending from around the world. The September 3rd, 1999 pre-application letter to County Planners, written by the applicant's lawyer and former County Supervisor Gary Giacomini, states "This Monastery will be a place of cloistered, quiet, contemplative prayer and refuge, and will be essentially a self-contained community with virtually no impact on the land or the adjacent community. The project will be invisible from all other public and/or private lands, or waters."

Environmental concerns with the development could be significant; a large flow septic system design and questionable soil characteristics for proper dispersal of effluent, increased motor traffic, wetlands and stream conservation areas, proximity and impact to Estero de San Antonio, and a serious problem of well water availability. A number of water wells already exist on the Christopher Ranch property, through pre-existing easements, serving the Oceana Marin Subdivision of 250 homes and others customers in the area a water moratorium has been in place for a number of years. There is no doubt that a CEQA process will be required, with a full Environmental Impact Report and its accompanying public process.

Access to the landlocked Christopher Ranch, historically a cattle grazing area, is by an easement through the Pozzi and Lawson Ranches. There is a legal dispute between the developer and the ranching families over the validity of the easement, which is playing out in the Marin Courts.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian Coptic Church has bought a number of large houses in the neighboring Oceana Marin Subdivision, abutting the Christopher Ranch, to use as "guest houses," but also with the hope of gaining legal access to their landlocked property through Oceana's private subdivision roads. The Oceana Marin Homeowner's Association, in accordance with their regulations, has repeatedly denied the developer's request for any such access to occur. Indeed, the Homeowner's Association has consistently written letters to the County documenting repeated trespass incidents by the developers, their agents, and contractors.

In November 2000, the head of the Egyptian Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III, was awarded the UNESCO prize for Promotion of Tolerance and Non-violence, and in acknowledgment of the honor, he quoted from the scriptures "Gentleness and meekness are needed to have peace." Purportedly following the Pope's teachings of goodwill and tolerance, Father Anthony Hanna and Lucy Michaels, both representatives of the Egyptian Coptic Church, called an emergency meeting in August, inviting Dillon Beach residents, Oceana Marin homeowners, and Concerned Citizens of West Marin. Unfortunately, according to sources attending the meeting, the discussions took an unexpected turn. Michaels, the project manager, announced to the group that the development had all its County permits, had been reviewed by the Coastal Commission, and that they would not have to change the zoning, but would be given a special use permit for the project. When astounded citizens pointed out that she was completely incorrect about the planning process and zoning, for both the County and the Coastal Commission, Michaels replied that she had been assured by Gary Giacomini that all was being done correctly, following procedure.

Marin County Senior Planner, Tom Lai, clarified the permit situation for the Coastal Post. "A pre-application is a request for the Planning Staff's professional assessment of the issues that the applicant will have to address, if and when they file a complete application. We issued a response to the pre-application, there were no entitlements given." On August 24th, The Egyptian Coptic Pope Shenouda III, was scheduled to visit the Christopher Ranch site to hold a "blessing" of the land and lay a "cornerstone for the foundation." Because of the continuing litigation over the easement, a temporary, one day injunction was sought against the ranchers by the Church, to gain access for the event. It was granted by Judge Dufficy with conditions: no permanent structures allowed, one truck, five cars, with only as many people attending as could fit in the cars (200 people was the original estimate). Since Shenouda and others would be visiting from overseas all would be subject to disinfection procedures to prevent the spread of Hoof and Mouth disease; the treatment to the entourage's shoes and car tires would be performed by the ranchers at the entrance gate.

The community and environmentalists staged a protest at the ranch's easement entrance, beginning at 6:00 am, pledging to protect the Coastal and Agricultural zoning from development. Oceana Marin security guarded their private roads, checking authorization of all vehicles entering. Active media coverage, the citizen protest, and the constraints of having a high holy person sprayed with disinfectant, appeared to be too much for the Egyptian Coptic Church and Monastery to bear and the Pope's visit and the event was canceled at noon.

Representatives from the Concerned Citizens for West Marin said that they did not believe the Pope was aware of the community opposition to the project, or the ramifications of opening up Coastal and Agricultural zoning for development. They said they had hoped to enlighten him to the local issues.

 

 

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