21 Aug 2014
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Patch Instagram photo by sanrafaelpatch
Patch Instagram photo by sanrafaelpatch
Patch Instagram photo by sanrafaelpatch
Patch Instagram photo by sanrafaelpatch

It's Not So Easy

Building homes in Marin County requires flexibility, patience and a thick skin.

You think it’s easy to build new houses in Marin County? You think you buy a chunk of land, show up with some plans, hire a crew and voila – six months later you have a dozen houses to sell? And after that, you sit back and count your money? Is that what you think?

If it is, you’re wrong. There’s much more to the process; it’s not just supply and demand that shapes growth.

Ask the people at West Bay Builders of Novato. More familiar with commercial projects, several years ago West Bay Builders purchased a 14.8-acre parcel at 650 N. San Pedro Road, in Santa Venetia, a CDP within San Rafael that once had ambitions of becoming Marin County’s version of Venice, Italy. Those early goals never realized, Santa Venetia instead became an unincorporated, mostly residential neighborhood with a rural feel. Today, approximately 4,000 people live in Santa Venetia, bound by a shared lifestyle vision and the Santa Venetia Neighborhood Association (SVNA).

Since 2007, they’ve also indicated that they share an opinion toward West Bay Builders’ proposed subdivision for its property on San Pedro Road: they don’t want it.

West Bay’s initial proposal called for 19 homes on a parcel zoned for five. The company then responded to community concerns by reducing its number to 12. The second plan was reviewed by environmental consultants from Design, Community & Environment of Berkeley, who concluded in early 2009 that, while the development would result in “33 adverse impacts,” they would not be significant. “This environmental impact report concludes that the project would not result in any significant and unavoidable impacts,” the report concluded.

If you’re a nearby resident, and you’re looking at a piece of land that, as long as you can remember, has been open space, how do “33 adverse impacts” sound? Pretty awful, no matter how they are mitigated by context.

A week after the Draft Environment Impact Report was released, local residents gathered for a public hearing on the project. There they raised concerns about “environmental degradation, traffic density increases and water drainage problems,” according to Friends of San Pedro Mountain 650 Group member Jonathan Metcalf in the March/April SVNA newsletter. They also expressed their opposition to the project’s request for re-zoning. Without re-zoning, West Bay Builders could construct no more than five homes on the property. The resulting homes would be high-end estates, a tough sell in Santa Venetia, an area of many charms whose median home value in February 2011 was $566,000.

To an outsider, West Bay Builders’ plans for the parcel seem sensitive to the community. A dozen homes on 14.8 acres still averages out to more than an acre per home. The proposal includes 8.6 acres of “open space,” with building sites ranging from 5,500 to 43,511 square feet. Homes would range in size from 1,600 to 3,650 square feet. When fully occupied, the development’s density would be about a 133 percent of the Santa Venetia average (and 71 percent of San Rafael’s as a whole).

According to the DEIR filed in 2009, the development “would not contribute to land-use conflicts in the surrounding area, nor would it contribute to a shift in the character of the area, which would continue to be low density, single-family detached residential.” But the neighbors don’t like it. They would lose 200 trees. They would face months of construction noise. They would have to look at what they, in their response to West Bay’s initial proposal, called “unimaginative architecture.”

The county Planning Commission will review West Bay Builders’ latest proposal on March 14. If it’s refused, the developers will have to regroup and decide to either change their plans – again – or scrap the whole project. It’s difficult to find fault with a community coming together to guarantee their voice in local growth, but no way is a five-home development at 650 N. San Pedro Road a money-maker for West Bay Builders; and developers, no matter how conscientious, are in business for profit, not for brownie points.

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