40-year-old Marin County housing project gets green light

An artist's rendering of a housing project on Martha Company's 110-acres of land (Marin County)

CYNTHIA SWEENEY,

It’s been more than 40 years that the owners of property on the southeastern tip of the Tiburon Peninsula have been trying to get approval for the development of upscale residential housing.

The project’s long and complicated history is characterized by back and forth law suits between the county, the owners of the property and an environmental group.

But the proposal moved a step closer to final approval Oct. 3 when the Marin County Board of Supervisors reluctantly — under court order — approved two out of four key elements needed for greenlighting the project.

Tiburon Peninsula is home to the towns of Tiburon, Belvedere and a portion of Corte Madera, but much of it is unincorporated. Richardson Bay separates the peninsula from the Marin County mainland. It is host to a number of rare and endangered flora species and home to ancient Native American rock carvings.

At stake is a 110-acre piece of land with 360-degree sweeping views of rolling hills, Angel Island and San Francisco, hiking trails and endangered plants and animals.

The current plan from the Martha Company, the owners of the property, calls for 34 single-family homes with 5,000–8,750 square feet on half-acre lots.

Nearly 75 acres of the 110-acre property would be offered for dedication to the Marin County Open Space District, which manages the county’s open-space preserves.

The owners of the property have also spent $6 million over the years, which includes three different environmental-impact reports, trying to get the project passed by Marin County.

THE BATTLE HEATS UP

The property was originally purchased by John Reed in 1912 and is now owned by the descendants of about 19–23 members of the Reed Family who comprise the Martha Company.

Fast forward to 1973, when things started to get complicated. That year, Marin County adopted a new Countywide Plan which put significant restrictions, including building height, on development near visually prominent ridgelines.

The following year, the county rezoned the Martha property, aligning it with the Countywide Plan effectively reducing the number of units allowed to be built there from several hundred units to 43 units.

In 1975, the Martha Company sued Marin County, contending that the rezoning constituted a “taking” of their property without just compensation.

In 1976, the parties settled in a judgment that permitted development of a minimum of 43 single-family homes on half-acre lots.

In the decades since then, Paul Smith, attorney for the Martha Co., accuses the county of setting deliberate “roadblocks” to stall the project, saying the county and Tiburon Open Space have used tactics to make the property less valuable so they can afford to buy it.

“I’ve been concerned for a long time that the county has a flagrant disregard for private property owners,” he said. Smith, former Mayor of Tiburon, took over the case for the Martha Co. in 2012. He was elected to the Tiburon Town Council in 2003 and has served on the Tiburon Design Review Board and Planning Commission.

Over the years, among the long list of disputed issues, the county rejected two separate environmental impact reports that the owners had compiled.

During a board meeting earlier this year, Marin County Supervisor Kate Sears said that more than half of the proposed homes would be built in an area designated by the county as a greenbelt. She said other unavoidable impacts involve: traffic noise, public safety, greenhouse gas emissions and biological impacts.

“Perhaps most importantly, there is the issue of the broader community good,” she said. “As all of us in this room know, this is really an extraordinary property with sweeping views of Marin County, the bay and San Francisco. It is the last remaining undeveloped ridgeline on the Tiburon peninsula.”

The county and the surrounding community have also repeatedly expressed concerns about the risk of landslides on the steep terrain, easily spread fires due to low water pressure, and increased traffic on the areas winding, narrow roads.

In another court hearing in 2007, a federal judge upheld the 1976 stipulated judgment and ordered the county to process a new application and grant the 43, half-acre lots.

However, more setbacks to the project occurred. A typical example was the issue of the design of a water tank which took three years to resolve.

In 2014, the Marin Municipal Water District said the preliminary tank plans “represented a significant departure from the district’s design guidelines for water storage tanks.”

In 2016 Martha Co. filed in federal court claiming the county had not moved fast enough to process their development, and that others, including the Water District, worked in concert to slow the process.

Later that year, the federal court ruled that Martha must submit new plans for the water tank.

In the latest ruling, in October, the county rejected the project’s specific plan, saying three of the houses should be moved down and away from the ridge and also restricted height on the houses.

The two sides will go to court over that in January.

As a result of the October approval of the environmental impact study, Tiburon Open Space, an environmental group, has sued the county saying it does not address fire, traffic, and safety issues. That case will go before the court in March, said Jerry Riessen, an environmentalist who co-founded the organization.

Smith said he expects another lawsuit against the Martha Company from homeowners whose property would abut the development, claiming the project would contaminate spring water that flows to their property.

RARE CASES

Lawsuits that drag on this long are rare, Smith said.

In a similar case, in 1983, Del Monte Dunes Corporation sued the city of Monterey after the city had continuously denied Del Monte Dunes’ proposals to develop their property, and each rejection was followed by stricter and more rigorous demands for a smaller, less intrusive development.

After years of rejection, Del Monte Dunes decided Monterey would not allow development under any circumstances.

It sued alleging the denial of their final proposal to develop property was a violation of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. They also claimed the continuous demands constituted regulatory abuse.

The city argued that its actions were not triable by jury, but the court disagreed. The case made it to the Supreme Court and was finally settled in 1999 for Del Monte Dunes, with $1.4 million in retribution.

“When you have a consistent process of turning down one plan after another, isn’t there some point where you begin to smell a rat?” Justice Antonin Scalia said at the time.

WHAT’S IT WORTH?

In 1988, the community group now known as Tiburon Open Space, was formed to find a way to purchase the property so as to preserve it as open space.

“People care about that land, it’s where they have been hiking and sharing time with family. It is a special piece of land for sure,” said Brendan Moriarty Bay Area program manager for The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that purchases land for parks and open space.

The Martha Company actually doesn’t care one way or the other if the property is developed or left for open space, Smith said. They are out to sell the property, and if it comes with entitlements to build, the value will swing significantly higher.

HARD TO PUT A NUMBER ON IT

To date, no one has come up with a number for what the property is worth, Smith said, as it would need to be appraised on its potential for future development.

“It’s very hard to put a number on it, but someone will,” Smith said. “It’s a simple case of private property owners who just want to sell it for fair market value.”

Although Tiburon Open Space does not have the funds to purchase the property, said Jerry Riessen, an environmentalist who co-founded Tiburon Open Space, the Trust for Public Land would likely be able to raise the money. The Trust is a nonprofit based in San Francisco, and with 30 offices nationwide, and one of the largest organizations in the country that facilitates public and private funding to purchase land for parks and protected spaces.

The Trust was formed in the early 1970’s when a group of people came together to purchase what is now the Golden Gate National Area in Marin. Since, they have purchased more than 3 million acres worth $8 billion.

According to Moriarty, the Trust is “definitely interested in purchasing the property” and has been in exploratory conversations with the owners. He declined to comment on the nature of the conversations, but said it boils down to all sides waiting to see the outcome of the case.

“Until it’s resolved it will be impossible to determine a price,” Moriarty said, in declining to give a ballpark figure of what he thinks it might be worth.

It’s not uncommon, however, for the Trust to pay $10 million–$20 million for property. The most it’s ever paid was hundreds of millions for tens of thousands of acres in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Moriarty said.

Riessen says the group has been trying to engage with the Reed family for about the past eight years to arrive at a fair purchase price. No offer has been given, however.

“We have no interest in delaying the project. We want to buy the land. The Trust for Public Lands has repeatedly made that offer and Martha Co. has ignored their overtures,” Riessen said.

‘CAN’T JUST TAKE IT FOR FREE’

Smith isn’t buying it.

“They keep saying they want to buy it. I’ve been sitting by my phone and no one has offered one dime,” he said. “The reason they haven’t made an offer is they are using this approval process to reduce the development potential of the property and thereby reduce the price. We’ve done a great job (in Marin) of preserving open spaces. But people have gotten so overprotective they go overboard and forget it’s private property. You can’t just take it for free.”

Still, both parties agree that early next year, when the remaining two entitlements could be approved, it could be a time for resolution.

“Then there will be time to work with them (Martha Company). There is strong interest and desire by all. Early next year will be a time to sit down,” Riessen said.

With the approval of the environmental impact report and the general plan in October, “We seem to be getting to the end of the road,” Smith said.

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, employment and residential real estate. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.