Tiny Hamlet Wary of Hotelier's Plan for Big Family Compound

Special to The Times

Although Susan and Nicholas Pritzker purchased their $2.5-million ranch several years ago, it was not until they disclosed plans to build a 10-structure family compound totaling 54,000 square feet that residents learned of the renowned hotelier's desire to go rural -- very rural.

An hour's drive north of San Francisco, Nicasio's population of 589 could fit into just one of the Pritzker family's 212 Hyatt hotels.

Yet this is the community in which Nicholas Pritzker, chairman and president of Hyatt Development Corp. and president of Hyatt Equities, and his wife, Susan, a part-time philanthropist and full-time mother, want to settle.

A privately held company, Hyatt manages and owns hotels, resorts, apartment complexes, casinos, senior citizen housing and health care businesses. The large Pritzker family is among the wealthiest in the nation.

Not all of Nicasio embraces the Pritzker plan. That the Pritzkers want to build a complex of oversized houses, critics say, despoils the very beauty that drew them to Nicasio.

Nicasio is so picture perfect that some days, dozens of painters trek into town to paint what artist Eric Whitten called "the sensuous landscape."

Hollywood location scouts, familiar with the territory, use it for commercials, although the proprietors of the local restaurant did reject a Dannon Yogurt request to bring "a trained cow" through the dining room.

Daffodils whip in the wind. Ravens swoop and dairy cattle graze on the green hills with rocky outcroppings.

The New England-style St. Mary's Church still stands alone, as it has since 1867. A slightly younger, cherry-red one-room schoolhouse sits by a larger school, housing all 61 students.

Most days, the town's ranchers and other residents crowd into the general store, restaurant, bar or post office -- all in one building that makes up the entire downtown. There's not a concierge or glass elevator within miles.

Initial plans for the Pritzkers' 845-acre ranch call for a 12,000-square-foot main ranch house, a caretaker's residence and an agricultural building. The pool house, garages, farming facilities and other houses, for their four children and two grandchildren, would be built over the course of many years.

That the buildings would not be visible from the road and that they would take up only a tiny portion of the land seems to matter little in the debate.

The Pritzkers have promised to build a fence to keep their cattle from straying and to enhance the natural streams. What counts, critics argue, is that the area is zoned agricultural. The Pritzkers have said they intend to increase the number of cattle on their property from the current 30 to 60 or 70.

"It's out of character for the area," groused George Googins, 57, whose family's roots in the community go back 150 years.

"I'm all for people building their dream houses, and I don't want to be so proprietary as to exclude new people. I don't think people should be penalized for who they are or what financial resources they may have."

But, Googins said, "what the Pritzkers are proposing would probably be better off in Boca Raton, Fla., where opulence is embraced. It's closer to Chicago and they won't have to go through the charade of trying to justify building a small city by claiming to increase the cattle herd from 30 to 60.

"Once the land is swallowed up, once you start the trend toward trophy compounds, there's no turning back."

If the Pritzkers are so anxious to live in rural western Marin, Mike Duke said from behind the cash register at the general store, "they should live in tepees."

Actually, Susan Pritzker has.

Several times a year, she flies from her home in Chicago, picks up her camping gear from her daughter's basement in San Francisco and camps out on her property. She brings her guitar and, she said, "I sing for the cows."

"I don't want to sound like I'm romanticizing back to the land or that I'm a dilettante," she said, "but I do come from farmers. My grandparents were Midwestern farmers who eked out their living. That closeness to the earth has always been important to me."

For more than 30 years, she said, she's been drawn to Marin. Two of her grown children have settled in the Bay Area. Once her youngest has left home, she said, she and her husband eventually will settle in Nicasio.

While the Pritzkers' next-door neighbor, an investment banker who purchased the property a few years ago, opposes the development, the most formidable opponent may be the respected Marin Agricultural Land Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping western Marin in agriculture. It has preserved 32,000 acres of farmland in Marin, and helped prevent a golf course and religious sect from taking hold in the area.

"It would be just one of those invisible changes that would have large consequences," said Bob Berner, executive director of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust.

The Pritzkers' development "would be smack in the middle of the agricultural area," he said. "There's no development that is remotely like it."

In fact, filmmaker George Lucas built his Skywalker Ranch on the outskirts of Nicasio. Its sprawling complex of buildings is far larger than anything the Pritzkers plan to develop, and, like the Pritzkers' proposed buildings, his structures are not visible from the road.

But Lucas started building before many of the current regulations were written. Whatever objections were raised when he first came to town have long since been muted. Locals describe him as a conservation-minded good neighbor.

Ken Irving, 71, a lifelong resident of the community, remembers when there were 19 dairies in Nicasio. Today, only three remain. Still, the rancher and former sheriff's deputy said, the Pritzkers "spent several million dollars buying the property. I think they should be allowed to build whatever they want."

Resident Laura Neely, on the other hand, worries about what they will want to build.

Today, they want houses; tomorrow, it'll be a convention center, she said.

"It's the beginning of the end," said painter Whitten, 36, setting up his easel at the Gallagher Ranch, the property adjoining the Pritzkers'. "It may amount to nothing," he said, "but over time the slow buildup in the area will destroy it."

Recently, the Marin County Planning Department declared that the Pritzkers' proposal need not have an environmental impact report. The Nicasio Design Review Board, an advisory group, has met with couple's architect and roamed around what one member called "the gorgeous piece of property." It has yet to make a recommendation. The local planning committee will next meet to discuss the controversy May 5.

"I'm sensitive to the concerns of the community," Susan Pritzker said. "We don't intend to build anything that is out of character with the region."

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