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California

Affordable housing is again a red flag in ‘green’ Marin County

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — After George Lucas abandoned plans to build a movie studio along a woodsy road in Marin County, he complained about the permitting process in a place so environmentally friendly that hybrid-car ownership is four times the state average.

His next move, some here say, was payback for what Lucas described in a written statement as the “bitterness and anger” expressed by his neighbors.

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The creator of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” is working with a local foundation that hopes to build hundreds of units of affordable housing on a former dairy farm called Grady Ranch, where his studio would have risen.

Now Marin County is squirming at that prospect — and it is not a pretty sight.


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this story included a photo caption that incorrectly identified protestors as being part of Citizen Marin, a group advocating local rather than state control over new housing construction. The protestors shown in the photo support the construction of more affordable housing in Marin County.

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The issue of affordable housing in California’s wealthiest county has always brought its “green” lifestyle and liberal social leanings into conflict. No Bay Area county has more protected open space — or fewer workers who can afford to live anywhere near their jobs.

At a recent planning commission hearing, where possible sites for subsidized housing were discussed, nearly all the heated testimony had some version of: “I’m all for affordable housing, but …"

Nine days later, protesters wearing “End Apartheid in Marin County” buttons demanded that officials do something to help low-income workers find housing in a place where the median home price is $650,000 and 60% of the workforce lives somewhere else.

The irony is not lost on Thomas Peters, president of the Marin Community Foundation, the philanthropy that is collaborating with the filmmaker to build along Lucas Valley Road. The region’s environmentally conscious lifestyle, he said, is built on the long commutes of low-paid workers whose cars choke Highway 101 to the point that “you can literally see the CO2 rising.”

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“The community, to some degree, has been lulled by success in its 40-year-old determination to really protect the open spaces,” Peters said. But “it is not sustainable to hold that kind of misperception that this is all beautiful and everything can stay as it is.”

With the Golden Gate Bridge as its front door and Point Reyes National Seashore in the backyard, Marin County is blessed with some of California’s most breathtaking vistas. Indeed, 84% of its land is protected as tideland, open space, parkland, agricultural preserves and watershed.

In an effort to address climate change and cut greenhouse gas emissions, the county in 2010 launched California’s first so-called community choice energy program. Marin Clean Energy purchases power for its customers from renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydroelectric projects.

But Marin is near the back of the pack in the nine-county Bay Area region when it comes to absorbing predicted population growth — and is the most unwilling, said Ezra Rapport, executive director of the Assn. of Bay Area Governments.

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Every eight years, California’s 58 counties are required to come up with a “housing element.” The documents are not guarantees that units will be built, but simply a demonstration that the county is zoned so growth could happen.

After the Department of Housing and Community Development produces growth estimates for each part of the state, regional governmental agencies negotiate with their cities and counties to divide up the responsibility to zone for possible future home building.

Currently, the Bay Area must plan for 187,000 new housing units by 2022, of which 110,000 must be affordable to very low-, low- and moderate-income families.

So how much of that burden is Marin County’s?

A total of 2,292 units, of which 1,400 must be affordable. In other words, 1.2% of the total homes and 1.4% of the affordable ones.

“It’s really a small amount of the Bay Area’s housing needs …[which are] pretty enormous,” Rapport said. “I don’t think anyone’s expecting them to rezone parkland. ... But Marin should be somewhat responsible for its own growth.”

The difficulty was plain to see during the March planning commission hearing in the county’s graceful civic center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Under discussion were 16 sites that could be zoned for 30 units per acre — high density for a county that has fewer than 500 people per square mile, compared with Los Angeles County’s nearly 2,500.

Although residents were dissatisfied with all the options, Grady Ranch and a project called Marinwood Plaza near Highway 101 were among the most controversial. They also paint a stark picture of Marin County’s reluctance to build housing for its low- and moderately paid workers.

Marinwood Plaza’s location — within sight, sound and smell of the 101 — was a stumbling block for several residents who worried it would be unfair for low-income people to have to live near a source of pollution that could increase asthma rates.

“This is NOT a safe environment for humans,” said Steve and Sharon Johnson in a letter to the planning commission. “The proximity to the freeway and the particles of brake that float in the air when people put on their brakes to come down the hill will hit right where this proposed development is.”

Grady Ranch is about 31/2 miles from the 101, but that’s a problem too, said Nancy Lowry, a real estate agent who lives in the Lucas Valley area.

“There’s no public transportation,” Lowry said. “It’s 51/2 miles to the nearest grocery store, seven or eight miles from the high school. There are no buses. ...You’re trying to bring in people so they can have a workforce that lives locally. But there are no services, no sewer lines, no electricity. It just doesn’t seem like the place that it should go.”

But Peters argues that the site is more than feasible. It already is zoned for housing, he said, and contentions that it is in the middle of nowhere are “laughable.”

Grady Ranch is made up of about 1,000 acres of rolling hills and bright green grassland, studded with oak trees and patrolled by wild turkeys. In the stretch separating the ranch from Highway 101, there are several subdivisions with hundreds of houses.

More than a decade ago, Lucas donated an estimated 800 acres of the ranch property to the Marin County Open Space District. Of the remaining land, only 20 to 30 acres is “actual, buildable space,” Peters said.

County planners peg the site as appropriate for around 240 units, although no plans for construction have been submitted. That, Peters said, could happen by summer.

Grady Ranch is “a grand opportunity to address a long-standing issue,” Peters said, and anyone who thinks this is payback has never spoken to the filmmaker.

“This is George Lucas. He doesn’t need to engage in small-town pique.”

maria.laganga@latimes.com


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