The Coastal Post - May, 1998

Lagunitas School In Deep Trouble: Held Hostage By Developer's Permits; Precedent For Development Being Established

By Jim Scanlon

Just about a year ago, a three person majority of the Lagunitas School Board signed a joint agreement with the French Ranch Development Project to develop a sewage system to serve the school and the luxury development which was having trouble getting permits to proceed. This generous act of "consensus building" was fostered by the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group, a powerful, quasi-official agency responsible to no one. This generous act has turned into a figurative millstone around the neck of the District.

Long time Trustee Richard Sloan was scorned and ridiculed for not going along with the three person majority in favor of the agreement. Sloan said he "...did not know where it (the sewage system) would go, what it would look like, who would pay for it and how it would be run."

After a major public uproar and several packed community meetings the sewage ponds envisioned in the joint agreement were modified into a less expensive, less visible sand filter system, but the agreement continued in effect. After expending thousands of dollars in consulting and legal fees, the District not only doesn't know where it will go, who will run it and how much it will cost, but it doesn't know when it will start and if it can pay for it.

Today, the School is facing financial disaster because it has a limited amount of money to repair its sewage system which is being hit each month by temporary, stop gap pumping costs. The longer it takes to begin a final fix on the system, the less money is available to fix the system. The school district cannot proceed because it is tied Siamese-Twin-like to the French Ranch Developer. The longer it takes, the more it will cost, and with no beginning or end in sight, the District could be bankrupted.

With three signatures, the Trustees delivered the school into bondage. They burdened the school with dragging the developer through a complex planning process to no discernible benefit of the District. If there ever was a benefit to the school district it is no longer there. If the present Board unilaterally goes forward alone, the developer could sue. It is a real mess.

The current incarnation of the joint sewage treatment plan is due for consideration on May 4, 1998 before the Marin County Planning Commission and it seems likely that the financially desperate position of the school will be an important factor in shepherding through approval for the French Ranch Development. In other words the school is a hostage.

Steve Kinsey, the prime mover of the "consensus building" plan when he was the de-facto head of he San Geronimo Valley Planning Group, is now a County Supervisor and is still nurturing the joint plan despite continued difficulties. As a new Supervisor he voted to approve the appeal of the controversial plan which he essentially originated. as a private citizen, as an employee of the School District and as an employee of a firm doing business with the School District: a quadruple conflict of interest, but few seem to notice these things in West Marin.

The latest development in this nightmare mess, is that, while the planning process locally is joint, the applications at the state level are separate. There seems little doubt that Kinsey has great influence within the county-and will not hesitate to use it forcefully, but his influence on a state and regional level is nil.

At their regular meeting on April 20, the Trustees were confused about the timetable for approval of the joint plan. Information was presented concerning Regional Water Quality's plans and intentions which was completely contradictory and frightening.

Richard Sloan said he has spoken directly to State officials who were concerned about who would run the joint sewage treatment district. This was exactly the issue which forced the three person Trustee majority to dump the original open sewage pond proposal. Sloan also said he was told that approval might take months, which of course would mean disaster for the District. The Trustee did not argue this point as they had in the past. Steve Cherrier a forceful proponent of the joint plan said that a delay would be a disaster. "It's a train wreck," he said.

The Trustees were also confused about their obligations under the agreement they signed and on two different occasions, portions of the contract were read out loud. Sloan felt it was important that they hold a special meeting with their legal council and that they discuss only this one subject. His suggestion died for lack of consensus: Trustees Marlowe and Cherrier, who voted for the joint agreement were not in favor of a special meeting-although they did hold a controversial special meeting last November so outgoing Trustee Brian Dodd, who had only a few days left on his term, could vote with them, 3 to 1, to insure the passage of an amendment to the joint agreement with the developer.

It was rumored that Steve Kinsey, acting behind the scenes, is trying to construct a plan which would allow the County of Marin to operate a kind of joint sewage district which would satisfy state authorities. They might just be so astounded by this type of novel, Rube-Goldberg contraption to give approval. However, it remains to be seen if Kinsey would be able to get two of his fellow supervisors to go along with such a plan which would certainly cause no end of development related trouble in the future.

With two new Trustees on the Board who are not committed to the joint development, Sloan does not seem as isolated as before, so there may be a way out of this mess. But then again, there may not be a way out.

Stay tuned as the school totters on the edge of the financial sewerage abyss!

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