The Coastal Post - September, 1997

Something Rotten Is Growing At Lagunitas School

By Jim Scanlon

Some 300 people filled the Woodacre Improvement Club to overflowing Tuesday night August 26 to hear the official line of the Lagunitas School District's Board of Trustees: an explanation of the history of its decision to jointly build two AIWPS-Advanced Wastewater Pond Systems (ay-whips) to serve the school's failing septic tank system and also to serve its neighbor, the French Ranch (luxury home) Development.

The Trustees, or more specifically one Trustee, Brian Dodd, has been negotiating intensively with the developer and local and state officials for over two years to build the now, highly controversial sewer treatment project. What the Trustees have done by a 3-1 vote is to sign a contract with the developer which commits a half million dollars in State emergency grant money to this project without written legal assurances that the Sewage Treatment Plant is allowable, and-if it is allowable-answer whether the benefits outweigh the potential hazards and liabilities.

The school is not officially under any kind of court order or regulatory pressure from parents or county or state officials to correct any past or current deficiency in its septic system and can operate as is for the

foreseeable future. It is, however, a very shaky system, partly dismantled, and there is a deadline for using the emergency grant funds-use them or lose them.

Board of Trustees President, Steve Charrier, who dominated the Trustees' presentation, described the establishment of the hypothetical Community Service Agency which would run the Sewage Treatment District as something "we are still working on-a work in progress."

Legal counsel for the Trustees, Suzanne Reed, said she had personally written the contract in such a way as to protect the District. In a startling, perhaps unintended admission, she said she had searched for

precedents of similar agreements between public agencies and developers and had found none. So basically she wrote the contract herself.

What is startling about this is that legal opinions involving risk usually refer to the weight of precedent. That is, the larger the number of clear precedents, the lower the risk. The admission by counsel, which went unquestioned, would seem to indicate shaky legal grounds for proceeding.

The meeting itself established a new San Geronimo Valley record for the number of people in attendance-about 300 (mostly well behaved) and for longevity-it went from 7 p.m. until almost 1 a.m. when about 80 tired, die-hard hold outs collected a few sleeping children and dragged themselves home.

It appears that the Trustees will set a date and place for yet another meeting at its next regular school district meeting. The new meeting will be to discuss and hear alternatives to the AIWPS sewer plan, the nebulous Community Service District or Agency, and the location of the second sewage treatment pond (no one seems to know where it will be located).

But appearances are deceiving, and with the existing history of miscommunication, misunderstanding and hostility, anything is likely to happen. The most favorable outcome would be for Marin County Counsel or the State Attorney General's Office to shoot this monstrous plan in the head, put it out of its misery, and allow Valley residents an opportunity to get on with their lives.

The Tuesday meeting was called as a result of 75 or so critics of the sewage union attending the last Board of Trustees meeting in early August. The critics were not allowed to speak except briefly during the open time section, as the item was not on the agenda. The chairperson refused to allow any questions. The meeting on August 26 at the Improvement Club was set up to allow the critics to express their concerns and also to present alternatives to AIWPS. Or so they thought.

From the start, it was apparent that President Charrier had a very different plan for the meeting than what the critics were expecting. Charrier perceived the meeting as the Trustees Meeting, that is, the three person majority for which he was the sole spokesman. Charrier mentioned several times to the audience "you have had your meeting" and "Save The Valley has had its meeting" alluding to a meeting with technical experts which took place on Sunday August 24, implying that the Woodacre meeting was "The

Trustees Meeting."

The technical experts for the critics who claimed that AIWPS was inappropriately large and too expensive for the District were not allowed to speak until around midnight.

Richard Sloan, the only Trustee to vote against the joint sewer agreement contract was told he could not speak until all the presentations were over. He would be allowed his two minutes at the end like anyone else who might have question. He managed, on his own initiative to get points forcefully across.

Sloan who has been misidentified by Marin County's daily newspaper as "an opponent of the French Ranch Project," has never opposed the Project. He voted against the project, and the letter sent by the Trustees to the County Planning Department because of a lack of information on how the sewer plant would be run and how it would look. The contract and a letter to the Planning Commission was submitted to the trustees the day before the Planning Commission was to meet.

Sloan has fifteen years of experience on the school board and has been elected time after time because of his insistence on parental involvement in education. He has been criticized for "not being a team player" and "being disruptive." Now, there are many who criticize him for not being disruptive enough.

Theater of the Absurd

It is difficult to understand how seemingly sensitive, sensible people can act so totally contrary to their image and the interests they supposedly support. Such is the case of the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group "environmental activists," most notably, Richard Gray and Bill Noble who are passionately advocating the establishment of a sewage treatment plant in the heart of the Valley, right on Sir Francis Drake Blvd., the gateway to West Marin, in a wetland, 100 yards from San Geronimo Creek, next to an

elementary school and Cultural Center. And this to serve a luxury home development around a Golf Course. Why opt for a novel, Rube Goldberg solution with unforeseen costs and consequences when ho-hum, tried and true, safe methods are there? Is any purported economy worth the dissension ? It seems so bizarre that many suspect ulterior motives.

The scene could not be more surreal if it were a Monty Python production of Alice in Wonderland staring the Three Stooges with claims that the sewage ponds will never spill and contaminate the creek, or produce odor, that the sludge will be valuable and useful, that reclaimed water will be sold and there will be low maintenance costs which will be capped and everyone will be very happy. The District will be protected. How do we know? The District's attorney said so. This is not the way the world works.

It is as if the District Trustees decided, "Hey, running a School isn't hard enough, lets run a Sewer District too! There will be toxic and noxious waste all around our kids and a whole new set of regulators and health and welfare problems to deal with." Sounds like a great idea doesn't it?

The main justification for this nightmare project seems to be that the "environmental activists" and one trustee spent a lot of time "working with" and "consensus building" with the developer, Honjo USA Ltd., a San Francisco firm which represents Japanese investors.

This is not a typical "developer vs. local residents" scenario. The developer of French Ranch obviously has a right to build however many homes and structures county rules allow. But what makes this project so unusual is the tangled involvement of the developer, public officials and the local school in the joint operation of a Service District even though this District has not yet been established and it is not clear who will pay (be taxed) to run it.

State officials denied the use of the $530,000 emergency grant in the joint sewage project with the developer. Only after lobbying by Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni was a variance obtained.

Although the School Board claims it has discussed the project dozens of times over the last two years, an examination of the minutes of meetings by volunteers reveals little or no discussion, usually submission of letters and consent calendar actions.

The contract commits several hundred thousand dollars of state grant money to reimburse the developer for the construction of the sewage plant within a five year period if certain terms are met. What happens if there are delays? If the contingencies are not met? If there are problems? No one knows and no one can say. This is the kind of agreement that provides long-term income to lawyers.

What is also unusual about the agreement is that the joint sewage treatment plant is not essential to the operation or expansion of the school and seems to benefit only foreign investors who will receive a greater return on their money by being allowed greater developmental density.

One might reasonably ask, "What possessed Brian Dodd and two other School Board Trustees to get involved so deeply with this developer?" It's a good question that perhaps only an expert on group delusion and "follow the leader" psychology might be able to answer.

While Marin County's daily newspaper has focused the dispute in the usual terms of belated opposition by marginal, knee-jerk fringe opponents and the inadequacy of Environmental Impact Statements, e.g. spotted owls, silver salmon and open space etc., etc., there has been no mention of the role of the school as the protector and guarantor for approval of a sewage plant for the developer. Once built it can be expanded.

The school has a back up plan and allegedly can pull out at any time. The developer allegedly does not need the Sewage Treatment Plant for the currently approved 32 houses. Why can't the two go their separate ways? Future school administrators would not have to be burdened with being joined to a special sewer district populated with wealthy residents with access to great white shark lawyers with an appetite for deep pockets.

Another odd aspect of this tangled mess is that recently elected County Supervisor Steve Kinsey refused to recluse himself and voted to approve the project when it came before the Board of Supervisors. He said that the $1,000 campaign contribution and other support he received from the developer would not influence his vote. This seems fair enough and believable.

Group and the developer. The sewage plant could, without much exaggeration be called his inspiration and dedicated to him by "an incredibly caring community" if it is ever built. He seems to have multiple publicized, unresolved conflicts of interest surrounding this project.

It seems strange in the extreme to see long-time residents of the San Geronimo Valley actually hitting the streets handing out flyers praising the benefits of a sewage pond in the heart of the community. They might as well be wearing booster buttons like, "Ask me about sewage sludge!" or "We like methanobacteria" and "Save Our Sewage Pond."

Is there any way out of this mess? Fortunately the Lagunitas School District Trustees have bungled this so badly that there are a number of outs. The wording of the contract was changed after it was signed and rushed off to the Planning Commission. That might be an out. If the project moves forward there will certainly be at least one lawsuit from a local resident whose attorney was at the Woodacre meeting.

But don't count on an easy exit out of this one. Although the Planning Group seems to be self- destructing with the Trustees adopting a rigid defensive posture and considering the contract to be a "done deal," the next act might be even more absurd-and ugly.

The Bolinas Sewage Pond.

The sewage pond on the Bolinas Mesa received favorable comment from the technical presenters at the meeting in Woodacre, and indeed, of all the slides shown of the various treatment ponds, the one in Bolinas looked far and away the most attractively green.

The experimental pond in Richmond and those serving the cities of Saint Helena and Napa looked like the kind of holding ponds one associates with chemical plants and industrial facilities---and that's just exactly what they are. They are great if you have a winery or food processing plant with tons of waste to dispose of.

The Bolinas Sewage Pond System is the third oldest in the state and handles the effluent from 163 hook- ups amounting to perhaps 35,000 gallons a day. This is four to seven times as much as the Lagunitas School facility would handle.

While a comparison of the two systems is not easy, the Bolinas system costs approximately $80,000 a year to run and recently one million dollars was spent to renovate and upgrade the system.

The odor problem is much improved now and is hardly perceptible except after an interruption in service and a new start up, or occasionally on hot summer days.

Reclaimed water from the Bolinas pond does not go off site and while it is possible to upgrade and treat the water to drinking water standards at additional cost, this has not been done for aesthetic reasons and cost considerations.

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