The Limit of Marin’s NIMBYism

Nope!

I try not to use that term lightly.  NIMBY (standing for Not In My Back Yard) is a pretty loaded pejorative, connoting a sense of entitlement to an unchanging landscape, and an irrational opposition to the project at hand.

With Grady Ranch, I think that’s exactly what we had.

If you follow Marin’s development news, even in passing, you’ll know that George Lucas’s Skywalker Properties pulled out of an ambitious project over neighborhood opposition.  The Grady Ranch proposal was to be studio and production space on Lucas Valley Road, though all the buildings were to be shielded from view from the road.  It would have included a huge amount of land preservation and a good deal of creek restoration work.  The Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Assocation (LVE) vehemently opposed the project, however, on environmental, quality-of-life, and other grounds.  After the County Supervisors were poised to approve the project when federal and state officials voiced concern over its environmental ramifications.  This, and the likelihood of continuing neighborhood opposition, caused Skywalker Properties to drop its proposal.

In a clearly bitter letter, the company wrote [PDF], “Marin is… committed to building subdivisions, not business.”  The company plans to sell the land for affordable housing because, “[i]f everyone feels housing is less impactful on the land, then we hope that those who need it the most will benefit.”

After the company announced it will abandon its plans, Marin’s supervisors went into crisis mode.  They offered to help defend any effort to delay the project, to approve the proposal as-is, and more, but as of Sunday night all signs indicated that the project was dead.

The whole sequence of events has left Marinites aghast.  Hundreds of potential jobs were lost.  Marin’s most prominent resident and strong county benefactor had been rebuffed.  We still remember the sting of loss when much of Lucas’ operation moved to the Presidio.

Encouraging to activists like me was how quickly the political channel has changed.  We aren’t talking about ABAG and housing quotas anymore.  The dialogue has swung away from, “We can’t possibly grow,” to the exact opposite.  Keep Marin Working, a business advocacy umbrella group, wrote in an op-ed, “Unless we take immediate steps to make Marin more business friendly, the Lucasfilm decision could be a preview of coming attractions.”  An IJ editorial wrote, “Lucas is frustrated and has had enough. It’s hard to blame him.”  The Board of Supervisors wrote [PDF] that they were “deeply disappointed” over the news.  Outrage over the news reached beyond the newspaper page, though I suspect we won’t see its fullness until Tuesday morning, when supporters invited by Supervisor Judy Arnold will speak their mind in support of the project at a supervisorial meeting.

I can identify three lessons from the wreckage of Grady Ranch.

First, NIMBYism is just as repugnant to Marinites as it is to developers.  The county’s residents do want jobs and development, as long as they don’t conflict with our environmental goals of open space protection or threaten town character.  Grady Ranch was environmentally friendly and kept with the rural feel of Lucas Valley.  Though it was a greenfield development some ways from transit, it maintained open space and bolstered the environmental value of the land.  People noticed.

Second, policymakers need to limit the number of procedural hurdles a project needs to jump through, as a neighborhood will always put up more.  Our boards and councils must always be cognizant of the potential for well-educated, well-heeled residents to abuse the system, and we should seek to limit their capacity to do so.  Grady Ranch took 16 years get to the finish line because of neighborhood intransigence and died because what seemed like the end really wouldn’t be.

Third, supporters need to be vocal.  The Board of Supervisors would have approved Grady Ranch unanimously if given the chance, and that is thanks in part to vocal local support.  This was thanks to George Lucas’ strong track record of development and community service.  Any other developer needs to do the same, showing that it invests in Marin and cares about its future, not just profiteering.  Supporters need to get the word out there – in editorials, letters, and in council and board meetings.  One ought never concede the conversation to conservatives through silence.

Alas, Grady Ranch may be fully dead.  Lucasfilm needs the space for filming now and will look elsewhere if they think there will be any further delays.  However, supporters of a strong and dynamic Marin should seize on Grady Ranch as a turning point, and look to the fights ahead: Mill Valley’s Blithedale Terrace development, SMART station area plans, and Plan Bay Area.

Mid-Week Links: Afternoon on the Bay

late afternoon above Richardson Bay, Sausalito, CA

by Stephen Hill

Marin County

  • Neighbors to the proposed Grady Ranch development have appealed the county’s approval of the project. The Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association alleges Grady Ranch would cause too much noise, light pollution, and be a general nuisance. (News Pointer)
  • The San Rafael Airport Rec Center project could run afoul of new California regulations on development near airports.  Though the project fit the old standards, a consultant has been hired to ensure it meets the new ones as well. (IJ)
  • Now that nobody is running for Ross Town Council, it’s up to potential candidates to file for a write-in candidacy.  If there’s an insufficient number of write-in candidates, the three positions will be appointees. (Ross Valley Reporter)
  • Sausalito wants to ease the problem of bike tourists getting stuck in town by setting up a ferry reservation system for cyclists, a far more efficient method than the current first-come-first-served method.  Expanding San Francisco’s bikeshare system to town may also help the more casual riders that don’t want to cross the bridge. (IJ)
  • San Anselmo’s moribund nightlife will get a boost this summer, as two wine bars are slated to open downtown – a near-first for the town. (Patch)
  • Novato’s revenues are better than expected, to the tune of $600,000.  Though the city is still in austerity mode, an expected transfer of $300,000 from the rainy day fund has been canceled. (Advance)
  • Southern Marin’s bikepaths got a $118,000 infusion of maintenance money from TAM.  Though chump change compared to road maintenance, the grant is a welcome recognition of the paths’ importance. (Marinscope)

The Greater Marin

  • San Francisco’s performance parking experiment is finally yielding positive results, with spots opening up around high-priced areas and filling up in cheaper areas. (New York Times)
  • Meanwhile, New York City is suffering thanks to its onerous parking minimums, which drive up the cost of housing in an already expensive city.  Though the practice of banishing parking minimums in favor of parking maximums is recommended in the draft Plan Bay Area, Marin’s transit districts would be wise to take heed. (Streetsblog)
  • Then again, pushing for strictly infill development and densification by loosening regulation won’t solve our housing problem given the pace of infill development, the extraordinary costs of consolidating properties, and political wrangling necessary to actually build the thing.  (Old Urbanist)
  • A 2001 study argues that transit-oriented development is not a traffic cure-all, as much of the benefits of TOD comes from densification and better location than simply better travel modes. (Half-Mile Circles)
  • If we want biking to take off, we must take it seriously as a form of transportation first and recreation second, something Americans typically don’t do. (RPUS)

Mid-Week Links: Empty Inside

© Nathan Kensinger Photography

  • Nathan Kensinger took a fantastic photo essay of one of the Bay Area’s ghost towns: Drawbridge, Santa Clara County.
  • Density doesn’t have to be bad.  Here in Washington, DC, there have been a few particularly beautiful examples of rowhouses hitting the local blogosphere. (DCMud, DCMetrocentric)
  • Well, my Washington ties finally pay off.  The debt debate is all the town can talk about, and at least one outlet asks, What happens to transportation if we can’t borrow?  It turns out, not much.  In the mean time, the FAA still isn’t reauthorized. (Transportation Issues, Washington Post)
  • It looks like the Marin County Planning Commission is going to look at some zoning changes.  On the table: density and mixed use, among other things. (MCPC)
  • Some neighbors are filing suit against a planned expansion of Edna Maguire Elementary in Mill Valley over slightly more traffic and slightly more height. (IJ)
  • Fairfax could get some more night life, although a bit off the beaten track.  South downtown’s abandoned gas station might become a music venue.  Rockin’. (Patch)
  • For once, the IJ was full of constructive examination of SMART this week.  A veteran transportation planner takes a look at the SMART train and asks naysayers, “Can’t we now get on with this project?” while Dick Spotswood thinks it will be too successful for its rolling stock, which have a maximum capacity of 498 seats.  Personally I think his analysis is oversimplistic, as SMART’s corridor is hardly similar to CalTrain’s.
  • Just when you thought it was over, ABAG’s affordable housing saga rolls on, this time to Sausalito.  They’re just getting started, but so far the debate sounds rather more civil than Novato’s contentious debate.
  • Speaking of Novato, opinion on the new affordable housing plan keeps rolling in.  SUNN panned the site selections for being insufficient, the IJ editorial board congratulated the city for how far it has come since the start of the debate, Brad Breithaupt decryed the whole process, and the city itself, in an uncharacteristic bout of practicality, started to look at how to make  better use of the market to meet its affordable housing needs through second units. (Pacific Sun, IJ, Patch)
  • Late Edition: It’s been a long time coming, but the San Francisco bike share project marches forward by announcing next year’s pilot plans.  Other cities along the CalTrain corridor will also be part of the system which, in the Bay Area’s Balkanized transit system, is most welcome. (San Francycle, HuffPo)