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The Best Laid Plans:

Our Planning and Affordable Housing

Challenges in Marin

by Bob Silvestri

Available on Amazon

@CVP - Redevelopment of the Corte Madera Inn

Introduction

 

The Corte Madera Planning Commission is now conducting its final public hearings on a proposal to tear down the existing, modestly scaled, 110 room Corte Madera Inn, and replace it with a significantly larger 187 room, Marriott Residence Inn and Springhill Suites. A number of residents have expressed concern that this proposal constitutes unnecessary over-development of the property, particularly since less impactful alternatives are available.

 

Community Venture Partners (“CVP”) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing the voice of the community to government decision-making. Toward that end, CVP spends significant time and money to ensure that government decision makers have the best possible data and expert opinions at their disposal, when they make those decisions. We do this as a free public service and our efforts are wholly dependent on the generous support of hundreds of Marin residents.

 

After undertaking extensive, independent analysis, and consulting with experts in environmental law, hydrology, biology, ecology and wildlife, it is our professional opinion that the proposal presently being considered would result in inappropriately scaled new structures on the site and the unacceptable loss of the existing pond and wetlands marsh area that provides emergency capacity for flood waters and significant habitat for important local bird species.

 

Furthermore, we concur with Corte Madera residents, who believe that the Corte Madera Planning Commission should recommend a less impactful, modified version of Alternative #2 that provides for no more than 140 rooms and preserves the pond and its surrounding vegetation (which must me restored and cared for, going forward). A more detailed explanation of our recommendations is found below.

 

Finally, in response to the projected impacts of the WinCup development, the Corte Madera Town Council declared a development moratorium along Tamal Vista Boulevard. However, the proposal by Reneson Hotels, to redevelop the Corte Madera Inn property was given an exemption to that moratorium because the Town has contended that the developer’s application predated that restriction. CVP has commented that it is questionable that the developer’s application was, in fact, “complete” prior to the moratorium since that application lacked sufficient design details (renderings, final site plans, etc.) that would have shown the public what was truly intended.

 

However, so far, the Town has not responded on this question. We ask that this be reconsidered in concert with the other issued raised herein.

 

Planning and Property Rights

 

To be clear, the decision before the Planning Commission is not about property rights. CVP fully supports an owner’s right to redevelopment property under the terms of the Corte Madera General Plan. However, in this situation, Reneson Hotels is not just asking to be able to do that, but instead is asking for a bonus of property rights of approximately 70 percent more than the existing development on the site. To accomplish this they are requesting a special amendment to the General Plan that would apply to only their property, without consideration for how the Town addresses the overall zoning issues for hotel uses throughout the Town.

 

This is a situation where a property owner is demanding “extra” property rights, based solely on their wish to maximize their financial gains. This begs the question, if the public grants a single property owner extra development rights, what are the off-setting benefits to the community, in exchange for this gift?  And, what kind of precedent does this set for future development proposals in Corte Madera.

 

Chronology of Public Comment

 

For several years, Corte Madera has been the epicenter of public debate about growth and city planning, triggered by the now infamous “WinCup” apartments project (“Tamal Ridge”). However, the WinCup debacle has awakened the community to the importance of good city planning, and now that community is more fully engaged than ever. CVP has also participated in this debate, commenting on the WinCup approval process, supporting the current development moratorium on Tamal Vista Boulevard, and meeting with Town Councilmembers about a variety of development issues in the town (e.g., the Cinema property).

 

The DEIR

 

In late 2014, the Town of Corte Madera released its Draft Environmental Impact Report (“DEIR”) for the Corte Madera Inn redevelopment proposal. Community Venture Partners was then contacted by Friends of Corte Madera, a group of local residents who were concerned about the proposal. In support of their concerns, we assisted them in retaining legal counsel, which resulted in the submission of a comment letter of January 20, 2015, on the DEIR, by attorney Edward Yates.

 

To read the full text of that letter, please click on the blue text link or go to:

 

https://marinpost.org/blog/2015/4/17/masquerading-as-bob-creating-a-blog-post-for-california?query=friends+of+corte+madera&section=

 

After numerous legal citations and discussion, that letter concluded by stating that

 

The DEIR is so legally inadequate the City should withdraw and start the entire process anew with a more transparent planning approach that complies with both the Corte Madera General Plan and Zoning Ordinance, and CEQA.

 

Subsequently, and as evidenced by those who attended the public hearings on the project in the first half of 2015, the public opposition to the developer’s proposal, was overwhelming. The proposal was seen to be out of scale with the community and overly impactful on traffic and the environment.

 

The REIR

 

As a result, but for reasons that we have never been able to completely understand, the Town then asked the developer to propose an even more impactful development, which was presented in the Revised EIR (“REIR”) in July of 2015. This forced CVP and the community to spend significant time and financial resources to submit a second legal comment letter, dated August 19, 2015, on that new proposal, even though the developer had publicly stated that they would never build it.

 

To read the full text of that letter, please click on the blue text link or go to:

 

https://marinpost.org/blog/2015/8/19/the-corte-madera-inn-reir-comment-letter-on-proposal-deficiencies?query=corte%20madera%20planning%20department%20&section=&type=

 

After providing extensive and detailed comments on the new REIR, this second letter came to the same legal conclusions as the one before it and suggested that

 

At a minimum, the REIR should be re-circulated for public review and comment with the additional analysis required by CEQA.

 

The FEIR

 

Finally, in late 2015, the Town of Corte Madera released its Final EIR (FEIR), which continued to recommend the 187 room design that required the destruction and fill of the existing pond / wetlands, despite overwhelming public comment to the contrary. In response, CVP asked its legal counsel, Edward Yates, to submit yet another comment letter, which was presented on January 11, 2016. 

 

To read the full text of that letter, please click on the blue text link or go to:

 

https://marinpost.org/blog/2016/1/11/cvp-submits-comment-on-the-proposed-expansion-of-the-corte-madera-inn?query=corte+madera+inn&section=blog

 

In that letter, we requested that the Planning Commission delay its recommendation to the Town Council because CVP was undertaking a full technical review of the FEIR, by experts in hydrology, ecology, biology and wildlife.

 

In addition, this letter concluded that

 

The EIR remains inadequate in regard to Alternative 1’s significant impacts related to flooding, polluted runoff and wetlands and CVP has commissioned reports by experts in these topics that will quantify and analyze those impacts.

 

CVP urges the Planning Commission to wait for these reports and consider whether selection of Alternative 2 could actually meet most project objectives and avoid the impacts and time and resources related to Alternative 1

 

Comments by Experts

 

The expert opinions noted above have now been completed and have been submitted to the Corte Madera Planning Commission. These include comments by:

 

Greg Kamman, PG, CHG of Kamman Hyrology & Engineering, Inc., dated February 4, 2016. To read the full text of that letter, please go to:

 

http://media.wix.com/ugd/0e1612_1fd05a3876cc4cf7bf734aeb955bedb3.pdf

 

Peter R. Baye, Ph.D., Coastal Ecologist / Botanist, dated February 15, 2016. To read the full text of that letter, please go to:

 

http://media.wix.com/ugd/0e1612_4c32c440efc34e2db2b6bfef3f35c57e.pdf

 

John P. Kelly, Ph.D., Director of Conservation Science at the Audubon Canyon Ranch Cypress Grove Research Center, and Scott Jennings, Avian Ecologist at the Audubon Canyon Ranch Cypress Grove Research Center, dated February 9, 2016. To read the full text of that letter, please go to:

 

http://media.wix.com/ugd/0e1612_dbfabca47c764522a71aaa8c16159ce3.pdf

 

Final Comments

 

As I’ve noted, one of CVP’s fundamental purposes is to bring the community’s voice to the local government decision-making process. Doing that in a credible way requires the retaining of a host of experts and legal advisors. Unfortunately, because of the extremely stringent statutory time requirements under CEQA, we must act quickly and be extremely thorough in our examinations, research and comments, in order to be prepared to take legal action in the rare instance that it is required to preserve the public’s rights to argue their positions in the future.

 

However, this requirement for submission of timely and thorough legal commentary has been misconstrued by some as meaning that CVP is litigious. Nothing could be further from the truth. We consider litigation as the very last resort when all attempts to reason with developers and agencies have failed to produce an equitable or legal outcome.

 

In many ways, our work is a thankless task. We are required by law to exhaust our remedies. This often includes doing an enormous amount of work for the cities we are dealing with, free of charge and without any opportunity to be reimbursed for those costs, just to help them avoid future litigation and to correct the incomplete or incorrect work of highly paid staff and outside consultants.

 

We do this all as a public service, doing this for cities to show them what we believe they should be doing on behalf of their residents. In this regard, we have by been advised by two CEQA attorneys: Edward Yates, and Michael Graf.

 

Along with other experts, these gentlemen have guided our understanding of the public policy, planning and CEQA issues that bear on the decision the Corte Madera Planning Commission is being asked to make. We respectfully urge the Planning Commission and the Town of Corte Madera to carefully consider their comments and recommendations.

 

Finally, the developer has indicated that they cannot move forward unless they are granted the approvals to build the maximum development they are requesting. They contend that the Town of Corte Madera must help them maximize their financial returns, or it would not be economically feasible to develop the property. Speaking as someone who has been involved in the real estate development business for over 40 years, as an architect, real estate broker, planner and developer, I can assure the Town of Corte Madera that this is nonsensical.

 

The subject property is a triple A, hotel development site, situated next to a major highway interchange and in the midst of a thriving commercial area. There are literally dozens of hotel developers / operators who I’m sure would jump at the chance to build products of varying sizes in that location.

 

Perhaps, Marriott Hotel's offer is most lucrative for the property owner. However, we ask that the Planning Commission please be reminded that maximizing financial benefits to an individual developer is not a legitimate argument for approval under CEQA nor is it an equitable rationale for amending the Town’s General Plan.

 

If you would like to comment, please address your comments to:

 

Adam Wolf

Corte Madera Planning Director

awolff@tcmmail.org

 

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