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June 2002

Point Reyes Housing Project Gets Final OK

By Louis Nuyens

The Ecumenical Association for Housing (EAH) Point Reyes Affordable Housing Project has passed its final checkpoint in the public approval process, before the California Coastal Commission (CCC).

On 9 May 2002, the Commission acted on two items: a Local Coastal Plan (LCP) amendment required to support County approval of the Coastal Development Permit for the project, and an appeal of County project approvals by Tomales Bay Association, Elena Belsky, and Mark Warner.

According to the CCC staff report, "The appealÉ is filed on the grounds that the approved development is inconsistent with the policies of the certified Marin County LCP concerning protection of water quality, sensitive habitats, and human health from adverse impacts related to the approved septic systems and polluted runoff."

Earlier this year, prior to County approvals, the appellants hired Fall Creek Engineering (FCE) to perform independent analysis of the projects proposed septic designs, hoping to support or lay to rest concerns raised by many as to the suitability of the site for such a large project. FCE found many significant flaws in site analysis and septic system plans by project consultant Questa Engineering.

As a direct result of the FCE study, the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) called on the County to add numerous conditions of approval. In the end, some 91 conditions of approval, to be administered by the County, apply to the project, related to the Fall Creek study.

The CCC approved the LCP amendment, and rejected the appeal referring, in part, to the many conditions of approval.

But, the sum of those conditions fails to determine whether the project should occur on the site. Project appellants asked that the project be demonstrated, within reason, to be safe before its construction is permitted. It may be that the project will be substantially or completely built before running afoul of one of the requirements-at that point, would the project be stopped, or would it proceed with patchwork safeguards?

The appellants felt the conditions of approval would be insufficient to guarantee public safety and environmental protection. Concerns as to whether the site, which becomes thoroughly saturated during normal wet season conditions, could support any sizable project using in-ground septic systems, were raised repeatedly throughout the public process. The appellants argued that a plausible case should be made for septic design before project approvals are made. Provisions requiring monitoring will be too little too late if the septic design fails after the project is installed, and ad hoc system modifications are implemented.

The appellants argued that the County is heavily invested, in both dollars and on political terms, in the project going through, and has not demonstrated adequate willingness to put tight reigns on project.

They also argued that County staff lacks expertise to adequately evaluate or oversee the project. As a result of the appeal denial, no oversight agency other than the County has looked closely at the project's septic system design. The Coastal Commission and County staff remarked several times that the RWQCB had given its approval to the project, but that is essentially untrue. The RWQCB has said it does not have enough information to make a determination on the septic and storm-water designs; nor have they seen an actual set of plans. The RWQCB, like the CCC, simply chose to leave the oversight decision-making in the hands of the County. In fact, to date, no one has seen final detailed plans for those systems; the project is effectively being permitted based on approval of concept, with finger-crossing in hopes that any problems will eventually be worked out.

The appellants also urged the Commission to take up the appeal to put an end to what it called County technique of breaking its own rules by allowing a system design that will probably fail, and being ready to imminently adopt alternative technology, as a way to effectively allow alternative technology systems for new developments, thereby circumventing County codes that prohibit alternative technology systems for new developments.

A Couple of Peculiarities

After paying close attention to a number of items preceding the EAH issue, members of the commission seemed relatively inattentive, as if they had already come to their decision on the matter or considered it of lesser importance. When the appeal came up, a couple of the commissioners stood up and began a conversation, between themselves, apparently on another subject, and the remainder seemed to lose focus. The decisions were unanimous and made with very little discussion after testimony. Photographs presented to the Commission, on the day of the hearing, illustrating wet season saturation of the site, were utterly ignored.

It may be that at least one of the commissioners had made up his mind in advance. Commissioner Mike Reilly admitted to an ex-officio site visit with Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey. Why Reilly chose Kinsey, who has been politically invested in the project since its outset and who has longstanding allegiance with Questa, to explain the appellant's objections to the project, rather than the appellants, their attorney, or Fall Creek Engineering, is subject to speculation. That type of meeting is generally considered less than entirely proper, but is permitted if disclosure is made.

 

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