The Coastal Post - September, 1998

Is A $240,000 Home Affordable In Point Reyes Station

By Jeanette Pontacq

There is a 900-pound gorilla loose in West Marin! Dressed in the guise of good intentions, it is simply another reincarnation of Big Development. It is a wake-up call to which we need pay big time attention. A couple of years ago, a town meeting was called to discuss the possibilities of an updated community plan for Point Reyes Station. At that time, questionnaires were circulated within discussion groups to ascertain what participants thought were the most important issues the town should address in planning. The issue most often mentioned was "affordable housing." "Affordable housing," of course, can mean different things to different people.

Fast forward to 1998. Michael Mery, a long-time resident of Point Reyes Station, presents the community with his version of affordable housing. To his credit, he knew Toby Giacomini was selling his property and that it was zoned for residential-commercial. His idea was to try to use the property for affordable housing rather than see it be divided into expensive lots for big, expensive homes. His version, sculpted with the help of developer Doug Elliott and the Ecumenical Association for Housing (EAH), was a 50-unit development on 19.6 acres one block off Highway One on property just behind Toby's Feed Barn. Since Point Reyes Station only has around 900 residents, 50 units caused an immediate stir. Proselytizing began. EAH now had a 3-year option on the land in question

The development was initially described as encompassing 25 low-income private homes in the $220,000 range and 25 apartments renting in the $800 range. Logic told many that such a range for the homes was nowhere near what could be afforded by most of those clamoring for housing they could afford. Rewind back to 1994. At that time, Senior Partners of West Marin was incorporated and took an option on two contiguous parcels of land totaling 14 acres at the intersection of Highway One and the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road. Coincidentally, those two parcels are contiguous with the 19 acres under option by EAH. Profit is not the objective. The intent is to provide convenient senior housing in a tasteful cluster. It already has over 30 active member families ranging in age from 50 years to about 90 years of age, from all around Tomales Bay. The total units planned are 36.

The senior project has not been built yet because it has been turned down by the State Regional Water Quality Board for a community septic system. It should be noted here that septic systems have acted for many years as the last line of defense against large developments in West Marin.

That protection may now be coming to an end due to the aggressive lengths Supervisor Steve Kinsey has gone to in order to position the county as the "guarantor" of the French Ranch community septic system. He has managed to maneuver the State Regional Water Quality Board to go along with the idea as well, to date without public hearings. There is strong evidence that the flood gates of development in West Marin are about to be opened via this maneuver by Kinsey.

Fast forward back to 1998. Point Reyes Station finds itself faced with a potential of 86-units of development on 33 acres for senior and affordable housing one block off Highway One, a stone's throw from the heart of town. Those are just the bare-boned facts. Whether one was for it or agin' it, Big Development had arrived on the doorstep of Point Reyes Station, dressed to be politically correct.

What came with it was a kind of class warfare, based on myth and illusion. Knee-jerk stereotypes were dragged out of closets to bolster positions pro and con "affordable housing." Suddenly the "rich" had taken over Point Reyes Station and diversity was endangered. Sports Utility Vehicles were decried as the work of the devil (well...) and "rich" came to mean anyone who already owned an abode, even if they were hanging on to it by the skin of their teeth. Owners of "second homes" were on a par with O.J. Simpson. Many an ol' time Liberal was shocked to be classified as one of the evil "rich." On the other hand, questions were asked about WHY and WHO needed to be helped with affordable housing. Why hadn't they worked harder instead of playing their guitar on the beach all those years? One makes choices, they were told, and some choices don't earn enough money to buy houses in expensive Marin County. Hardball by both sides.... creating a division that stops them from seeing the reality and discussing the bigger picture. So while too many residents play at Class Struggle 101A, Big Development waits patiently, smiling.

The real questions about the potential build out of Point Reyes Station, the proposed community septic systems, rezoning for greater or lesser density in both Point Reyes and Inverness, sweat-equity clustered housing, , loss of the last potential commercial area in town to residential housing, sustainability and carrying capacity, livability standards and, most important, other Big Developments waiting in the wings for West Marin are often lost in the surface discussions.

Next thing to happen was that EAH and the proponents of the housing project, due to the controversy engendered, seemed to back off the 50-unit project idea and offered to open up the discussion to whatever other ideas the community may have for that land. EAH, of course, is in the "business" of providing affordable housing projects that are cost effective (read 50 units) and will be promoting that idea. A community meeting has been called by Supervisor Kinsey and EAH for September 9 to begin the process of building a consensus in the community for what is to happen on that piece of land. It is important to note that a local village association is not hosting the meeting... it is coming from the county and EAH.

Before that meeting, we all need to face the fact that there IS a real shortage of affordable housing all over West Marin, for multiple reasons. One reason is that land values have skyrocketed in Marin County over the years, raising rents and house prices out of reach of many. Another is that so many of the small cottages throughout the area have been turned into Bed & Breakfasts (B&Bs;) and been taken off the rental market.

A mega-reason is that the county of Marin has made the cost of building affordable second units for rental or upgrading older cottages astronomical through outlandish permit costs and regulations. The actual permit costs for a small cottage can end up being more than the cost of the building materials and labor. Because the multiple and expensive permit fees and general hassle for approval is so great in this county, it simply doesn't make economic sense for people to build anything other than big, expensive houses on expensive pieces of land.

There is a definite hypocrisy by the county, and the supervisors, in backing Big Development as a solution to the lack of affordable housing, while it continually puts more and more nit-picking, sometimes really stupid, costs on building individual affordable units or even making small changes to existing structures.

Another factor to consider is the steady change in the nature of work in West Marin over the last decades. Most of the service economy jobs available do not earn sufficient money to afford property here. That fact of life creates a parade of workers, morning and evening, commuting to and from Sonoma County. The influx of hard-working Latino immigrants to fill many of the work niches has further exacerbated the situation for some long-time residents. Both of these issues are common throughout Marin.

The big question is how to provide enough affordable housing to fit the town while fending off the new opening to Big Development here that is coming from the French Ranch precedent.

A second question is how to keep the process community based and not be pushed by the county into a situation that will quickly morph into something they want and we might not..

So tuned in next month for the second installment of the saga of Big Development in Little Point Reyes Station: And if you care about Point Reyes Station, better show up on September 9 and participate in the preview. It is hopefully called Participatory Democracy. Or a Dog and Pony Show. We shall see which.

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