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Marin Certainties: Downtown Novato Unrest, Lawyers and Taxes

Columnist: Bill Meagher
October, 2018 Issue

Bill Meagher
All articles by columnist

There is a reason that Novato is spelled as it is, with the city’s name beginning with the word No.

There is no downtown in Marin that is more filled with drama, controversy, and sometimes head-scratching silliness than Grant Avenue. Just ask the owners of Finnegan’s Marin, a family-style pub and restaurant that is now in the middle of a festering fight over a patio in front of its door.

The eatery, located at 877 Grant, was granted a permit in February that allowed a “parklet,” a 700-square-foot patio constructed from three parking spaces that belong to the city. The idea was for Finnegan’s to expand its business hours with a lunch but also to generate more foot traffic for other businesses.

But the owner of the neighboring property to Finnegan’s which includes Mantra Wines and Celine’s Sweets, Gordon Uhlman, was unhappy with the loss of parking in front of his building as well as the new restaurant activity that was spilling onto the sidewalk. He charged that the city did not let him know that the trio of parking spaces were going to be used as a parklet for Finnegan’s, and he asked City Hall to give the boot to the restaurant and simply allow the public to use the space.

In keeping with the grand Marin tradition and the local effort to keep barristers from having too much idle time, a legal dispute arose. Now the parklet will be reduced in size such that it will only be in front of Finnegan’s. A 16-page legal settlement between the city, Uhlman and Finnegan’s detailed how the changes would be made and reduced the area for Finnigan’s patio by 65 percent. More importantly, however, it took the city off the hook for a legal fight that it neither instigated nor desired.

Not everyone shares Uhlman’s disdain for the parklet, however. Merchants on the street expressed a disappointment over the changes, saying that the patio had injected some energy into the neighborhood. And a petition on asking the city to reverse its decision has collected 2,500 signatures from those backing the patio.

Novato’s downtown has long been known as a challenging place to do business in that some degree of bickering is almost always in place. Novato’s main street has always faced traditional business challenges like economic ups and downs and competition from the Vintage Oaks at Novato, a power center with tenants like Costco and Target. The downtown has also strained to find a comfortable hook to bring residents and visitors in. When Whole Foods went in at the freeway end of Grant, there was an expectation that the store would bring more shoppers and diners to the downtown. Instead, residents were put off by how large the store was in terms of scale and the downtown area, but not put off enough to skip shopping the organic grocer.

And both the city and local business organizations have sought to find the ultimate answer to what kind of business mix would do the best job of combining what consumers wanted and how businesses might fill that need.

Your Marin moment

Next month, voters in West Marin will be asked to cast a ballot to decide whether a transient occupancy tax (TOT) will increase from 10 percent to 14 percent, to help pay for long-term community housing in the region as well as amped-up emergency services and fire resources. The measure could raise $1.3 million annually.

Because the measure qualifies as a special tax, it will need to capture two-thirds of the vote to pass, not a small thing in this slice of Marin.

West Marin is the last man standing when it comes to how Marin has changed. Largely agricultural and fiercely independent, it boasts towns such as Bolinas, Point Reyes Station and Stinson Beach. The area is known not only for its pastoral beauty, but an innate distrust of county government. And this measure has been championed by the county, led by Supervisor Dennis Rodoni.

While there is no doubt that West Marin could benefit from more emergency resources as well as community housing, and the measure has some support, local innkeepers are strenuously opposed to the increase. A group of nine West Marin hoteliers has organized and, of course, hired a lawyer, vowing to not only bring a legal challenge should the tax increase pass but to withhold paying the county its monthly TOT payment “until a fair resolution is brought forward to support.”

The TOT increase spares a tax increase for West Marin in general and instead puts it on the hospitality industry, and innkeepers say that business is already down. They also say that increasing the amount paid by guests will hurt business even more.


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