The Coastal Post - August, 1998

Hanky Pank And Backroom Deals On French Ranch Wastewater System

By Elena Belsky, Jean Berensmeier, Dr. Richard Haber, David Reich, Todd Steiner and Elizabeth Wolf

Residents of the San Geronimo Valley can breathe easier knowing that there will not be an open-pond sewage facility (AIWPS) built in the French Ranch wetland next to the Lagunitas School and the San Geronimo Valley Cultural Center.

It was Save the Valley that alerted local residents and provided the necessary information to determine if an industrial-type sewage facility was right for our rural area. We focused the spotlight of public scrutiny on a planning process that had not been adequately presented to the community and that had ignored offers of help from local experts. We had grave concerns about a school bureaucracy that refused to recognize the importance of providing a public forum that showed the proposed sewage facility plans and provided a full accounting and public review of the environmental, safety and legal issues raised for the community before signing a contract with the French Ranch developer.

Six hundred and seventy Valley residents signed a petition that asked the Lagunitas School Board for no AIWPS and no deals with the French Ranch developer. Part of the debate that followed was about whether our public school should be involved with a private developer at all, mixing tax dollars with a private development-actually co-mingling the risk of development with the fiscal health of the school. Board Trustees justified their involvement by taking the position that under the best of circumstances the deal might have saved the school some money and land. But it means the developer would get special treatment in the permitting process. The developer needs special treatment, because normally, a private developer is not permitted to build and operate a centralized sewer-only a public entity can get such a permit. And there is good reason for this policy-the liability created by these systems will last for generations.

AIWPS died for three reasons: Prop 218, which would have required the school to pay its equal share of maintenance costs (an additional $50,000 annually) eliminated any advantage for the school, which had agreed to pay the majority of building costs in exchange for paying unequal reduced annual maintenance costs. The school, realizing the legal and financial liabilities of becoming responsible for the centralized sewage facility, refused to become the public entity. And because the community was outraged over building an open pond sewer system along Sir Francis Drake Blvd. next to the school, Cultural Center, library and San Geronimo Creek.

Unfortunately, the saga continues

Now our school is between a rock and hard place. It cannot begin to build its sewer facility on French Ranch property until the developer grants them the land, and the developer won't grant the land until his permits are approved. Supervisor Moore said it best at the May 19th Supervisor's meeting after the developer refused to respond to his request that the developer grant the land immediately, "The school is being held hostage..." Yes, and we are all paying the price. The present estimate for the cost of the school system on French Ranch property includes $140,000 expended to date, $60,000 in pumping fees, plus a low bid for construction that ranges between $472,000 and $484,000 and requires over a mile of sewage pipe across the French Ranch property.

But it's unfortunate that the past school board ignored the advice of residents when first asked not to sign the contact with French Ranch without public hearings, when asked not to sign the amended contract with the developer, and when asked to move forward with the simpler, and still available "back-up" on-site sewage system alternative that didn't require involvement with the developer.

What is happening now

Before issuing a permit the state Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) requires that there be a "public entity" to assure liability coverage not guaranteeable by a private developer. County counsel Patrick Faulkner advised against the County of Marin becoming this public entity because of fears of taxpayer liability for a private development.

Nonetheless, Supervisor Kinsey wants to see the French Ranch Development pursued. He has orchestrated an arrangement in which Marin County would assume the dubious role of becoming the "oversight public entity" for the development's sewage facility. In this way, the French Ranch developer is attempting to get his RWQCB permit for operating a private centralized sewage facility.

This means that Marin taxpayers could become burdened with financial and legal liabilities if something went wrong with the development. This serious departure from existing land use policy would create a precedent for private centralized sewage systems that could allow development in other rural areas in Marin and California that previously had minimal potential for development.

A backroom deal?

At the June 30 Board of Supervisors meeting, the County used a "status report" as the vehicle to give administrative approval for wastewater discharge at French Ranch. This surprise move constituted the only public airing of this issue which our attorney subsequently learned had already been ensured through a private, negotiated "protocol" between the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the County. We objected, unsuccessfully, to this precedent-setting action regarding land use through an "administrative" process and without benefit of public notice, review or input.

The issue has grown from a "local" Valley concern into a county-wide and possibly a California-wide threat. Save the Valley, a group of dedicated all-volunteer environmental and community activists, has hired an attorney and plans to appeal at the state level and let the Board of Supervisors and the Community Development Agency know that we do not approve of their end run around the public process on a precedent-setting land use issue. We must keep Marin County safe from urban sprawl, protect California's most important coho salmon stream, and safeguard California's rural areas from this dangerous precedent. We must not allow private developers to build and operate centralized sewage facilities that ultimately hold county taxpayers responsible. Join us: Save the Valley Executive Board, POB 377, San Geronimo 94963.

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