The Coastal Post - October, 1997

Maloney And Giacomini Push For Luxury Home Development At Gateway To West Marin

By Marian Breeze

We've all seen new overly dense developments in Marin that pop up and stick out like a sore thumb. Have you ever wondered how they got approved? One such development being proposed by Pacific Union Homes is a good example of how the system works.

PU Homes (pronounced pee-yew by local residents) owns the hillside on Shoreline Highway opposite the hairpin turn at Loring Avenue. A sign at the bottom of the clear-cut swath of land reads "Mountain Gate." PU Homes plans to build 41 houses and provide access to an additional 33 building sites. Their blueprint for railroading this through the County is simple: hire County insiders, circumvent the state environmental laws by creating paper corporations and mention legal action if the County doesn't roll over.

According to the planning department records and court documents, Douglas Maloney, former head of Marin County Counsel's office, now represents PU Homes as their lead attorney for the Mountain Gate project. Mr. Maloney represented the County in a lawsuit brought against the County by the previous developer of this project. As the County's attorney, he had access to all County documents, including confidential materials only his office would be allowed to review and discuss. This knowledge should be quite helpful to PU if this project ends up back in court.

Gary Giacomini, former Marin County Supervisor representing West Marin, who sat on the Board at the time the project was originally brought to the County and voted to approve this project is now also working on PU's behalf. He may even represent PU at the Board of Supervisors meeting in October. Has Giacomini, who prided himself on being a leader in conservation issues while in office, sold out? Giacomini's response is, "Thank God for Pacific Union. They are a huge improvement over the previous developer. This is a good project and I am proud to work for them."

Other defectors include J.T. Wick, the lead planner for the County on this project until 1996 who works for the engineering firm hired by PU Homes, and Scott Hochstrasser, also formerly with the Planning Department and involved in this project, now employed by PU.

PU Homes managed to avoid much of the legal requirements surrounding large scale residential development by "checkerboarding" their properties. "Checkerboarding" means they place every other property under separate corporate ownership. Jeff Abramson, president of PU has stated in writing they own the entire development and intend to build 41 houses. This admission is apparently not enough to enforce the rules.

By maintaining the illusion of separate ownership, PU can't be forced to merge their lots into one project, and one big development is treated as though it is several little projects. Many of the laws created to protect the environment from overly dense development do not apply.

Large developers such as Pacific Union intimidate local governments with high priced attorneys and the threat of litigation. "Not so" says David Zaltsman, from the County Counsel's office. "I can't say that it isn't considered, but we try our best to do the right thing. Look at Bel Marin Keys."

Bel Marin Keys refers to a development company that wanted to put in 800 houses in Northern Marin. The County allowed less than 200, and the developer is now suing the County for 30 million dollars. With limited resources and no insurance against such litigation, it is easy to see why County officials might not be willing to go the distance every time they should.

"Developers want it both ways - they threaten the County with lawsuits under the guise of 'property rights' while circumventing the laws governing property development," Says Chris Figueroa, a founder of the Shoreline Gateway Association (SGA).

The SGA was formed by Southern Marin residents to preserve the semi-rural character of Tam Valley, address areas of concern, particularly traffic, fire safety, and visual impacts, and ensure new developments in Tam Valley comply with the policies of the Tam Area Community Plan. More than 200 residents have joined the group and more people call every day asking how they can help, according to Figueroa.

According to Mary Hunter, co-founder of SGA, "74 houses on this hillside will add approximately 300 more cars to Shoreline Highway. Their only access is from one left hand turn lane that is located next to a hairpin turn. If there's a fire on the mountain, or maybe I should say 'when', emergency evacuation will be bad enough without this project."

SGA claims to have discovered many irregularities with the way this project has been handled from nearly the beginning. The developer missed a deadline for securing permits in 1990 and was granted a one year extension. When that expired and the County refused to allow another extension, the developer sued.

The County won the lawsuit, but the developer threatened to sue again. The county rolled over and settled out of court.

Records at the Public Works Department indicate the grading permit was extended twice, expired in December 1995, and has not been renewed. Pacific Union is continuing grading work without a permit.

According to Andrew Schwartz, a land use attorney who is volunteering his time on behalf of SGA, "Resolution 4159, passed by the Board of Supervisors in 1989, specifically states the developer had until August 1, 1990 to secure all permits for the project. That deadline was extended to August 1991. They

missed the deadline, and should have to start over again."

Apparently, the Planning Commission agrees. The Association recently won an unprecedented decision from the Planning Commission, which voted 5-2 that the project does not even exist at this point because the previous developer missed the deadline for securing building permits. This decision is highly unusual because the commission disregarded the County counsel's opinion, which states that there is no deadline for securing permits. "I have never seen a legal agreement that says you have until eternity to build your development," says Schwartz, "The commission did the right thing by upholding the original resolution."

PU Homes has appealed the planning commission's decision with the Board of Supervisors, which will decide the issue at their October 14 meeting. Supervisor Annette Rose has said that County Counsel will review all of the documents and revisit the issue of whether or not the developer has vested rights, and issue an opinion 10 days before the meeting.

It is likely the Board will overturn the planning commission's ruling and support county counsel, unless there is a public outcry. "We need people at the Board meeting on October 14 to let the supervisors know that poorly planned developments are no longer acceptable in Marin," says Figueroa.

What are the chances of getting the Board to uphold the planning commission's decision? "Zero if we don't try," says Schwartz. "It depends on how courageous the Board of Supervisors is willing to be. The planning commission's decision is the only legally defensible position. The Board should uphold that decision because it is the right thing to do. But they need to hear from their constituents, to know that we expect them to uphold their agreements."

What is the ultimate goal in the appeal? "If we can prevail here, we'll end up with a much less dense project because the newer laws and regulations governing development would apply", says Schwartz. When asked why she got involved, Figueroa answered, "Just think of the visual impact, as you are heading through the gateway to West Marin. Picture coming around the corner and having 74 houses in your face. It's enough to get a lot of people upset over this project."