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Holy Cow!

Author: Bill Meagher and Peter Seidman
December, 2006 Issue

Marin County's development debate comes to a head at St. Vincent's / Silveira.


It isn’t quite 7 a.m., and the southbound traffic on Highway 101 crawls as cars crest the hill coming out of Novato and drop down into Marinwood. Commuters on the northbound side of the highway can look toward the San Pablo Bay and see the fog hugging the ground, shrouding the rolling hills and oaks in a ghostly blanket. Further north, the cows from Silveira Ranch gather near the fence line and head out to a pasture dry and barren from a late Indian summer. The 78-year-old Italian Renaissance church of St. Vincent towers over the herd of Holsteins as if keeping track of the bovines. On this chilly morning, rays of sun squeeze through the marine layer and mix with the wet mist to lend a mysterious quality to the 1,300 acres known as St. Vincent’s/Silveira.

The curtain-like haze fits the land to a T as uncertainty has draped the ranch and church land for almost three generations. That ambiguity hasn’t really benefited from three different land-use committee studies, a ballot measure, countless public meetings or a lawsuit. Perhaps the most remarkable thing to come from this tortured process is that there’s only been one legal action in relation to the area in a county where some organizations and businesses have their barrister on speed dial.

Depending on whom you talk with, the adjoining properties that belong to the Catholic Youth Organization and the Silveira family north of San Rafael are an ideal location for market-rate housing, affordable housing, commercial development, a mixed-use development, a senior care center or open space.
 

The land in question

The St. Vincent’s land is owned by the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), which falls under the organizational umbrella of the San Francisco Catholic Archdioceses. It began with a gift of 317 acres that was donated by Timothy Murphy to Archbishop Alemany. The school for boys, which was opened by the Sisters of Charity in 1855, is the oldest continuously operating school for children west of the Mississippi; it’s number 630 on the California registry of historic landmarks. There are 952 total acres of land on which it sits, including the St. Vincent’s Holy Rosary Chapel that can be seen from Highway 101. Today, the program consists of residential counseling for troubled youth as well as educational programs.

The school, like most in California, is always in need of more funding. For St. Vincent’s, the need is more critical since the buildings are in need of repair—in some cases, complete rebuilding or tear-down. In the 1990s, the school had proposed selling 594 acres of land to Shappell Industries for development of homes and commercial buildings. But the sale never came off, due in large part to the fact that, although the property has long been planned for building, the city of San Rafael and the county of Marin have never agreed officially on whether the development could take place, nevermind at what level.

Bordering the church property is the Silveira Ranch, a 358-acre spread on which the Silveiras run the last remaining dairy operation in east Marin. Led by family patriarch Tony Silveira, the family has made a living off the land for as long as anyone can remember. As part of the 1972 General Plan, the county elected to take away the family’s Williamson Act designation, meaning it would no longer be taxed at a rate consistent with agricultural use but rather as land that could be developed. The new plan zoned the ranch and neighboring St. Vincent’s land for development as part of the “city-centered corridor” (CCC).

The CCC was designated for the lion’s share of future development along the Highway 101 corridor.
The change has cost the family literally thousands of dollars extra in property taxes each year as they continued to run the ranch. And since then, the Silveiras have done a slow burn waiting for the city and county to come to grips with what could ultimately take place on their family land. They have met with city and county officials, participated in studies and even come forward with an informal development plan of their own.

But today, the cows graze in quiet solitude, undisturbed by construction, and the family’s developmental rights are in limbo.

The problem for both St. Vincent’s and the Silveiras is that, up until 2005, while both properties are outside the San Rafael city limits, the lands were within the sphere of the city’s influence. “Sphere of influence” is planese for land that will eventually be annexed into the city, and thus the city must take it into account when planning for such things as fire protection, sewer service or affordable housing requirements.

To date, there’s little (if any) agreement among land owners, the city of San Rafael, the county of Marin, the business community, environmentalists, affordable housing advocates or anybody else who’s ever bothered to circulate a petition, step up to a microphone at a meeting or write a letter to the editor. Moreover, there’s even less political will to do anything, leaving the CYO and the Silveira family to twist in the wind.

What is undisputed is the fact that the 1,300 acres that run from Highway 101 to the San Pablo Bay represent the largest and last block of undeveloped-but-buildable property in Marin County. What’s also undebated is that the uncertainty over the future of the land has cost the Silveira family a small fortune and delayed the CYO’s plans to renovate its aging school. It has propelled a political unknown into a county supervisor’s seat and, for all intents and purposes, ended the political aspirations of one city councilman.

The tale is the stuff of movies, with a cast of characters that includes a politically connected development company headquartered in Beverly Hills, a crusty family patriarch, the most powerful religious organization in the world, various elected officials of every stripe, captains of industry and take-no-prisoner environmentalists. It also stars troubled kids and slow-moving cows. It would make a dandy comedy…if only the story weren’t so true and so sad.

At this writing, the question of what can become of the portion of the land belonging to the CYO is before the Marin Superior Court. The CYO has brought a lawsuit against the city of San Rafael, claiming the city was arbitrary and capricious in taking St. Vincent’s out of the city’s new General Plan. The suit also contends the city illegally certified its General Plan before the associated environmental impact report was certified and that the city’s housing element is legally deficient. Marin Superior Court Judge James Ritchie is expected to render a decision soon.

To understand the future of St. Vincent’s/Silveira, one must try to understand the past—which is not an easy thing to do. Moreover, one must understand the agendas of all parties involved in this 25-year-old land dispute.

It’s a long story…

Since 1962, both properties were considered by the city of San Rafael in its long-range planning although both properties were outside the city limits. In 1972, the Local Area Formation Corporation, the agency that rules on what cities can consider as part of their planning area, deemed both properties were officially in San Rafael’s sphere of influence. In short, for the purposes of efficient planning, the city was to henceforth look at both the Silveira Ranch and St. Vincent’s as possible annexation sites and the future receivers of city services.

In 1972, Marin County filed its first General Plan. It set up three corridors across the county and designated the section closest to Highway 101 as the “city-centered corridor.” By design, that section would have the majority of both residential and commercial growth. In 1973, both St. Vincent’s and the Silveira Ranch were included in that corridor and, as a result, the ranch lost its Williamson Act designation. By 1982, the properties were designated by the county for study regarding housing. From 1982 to 1986, the county of Marin and the city of San Rafael looked at the area for the first time with an eye toward collaborating on planning.

The city of San Rafael’s 1988 General Plan stated the pair of properties could possibly accommodate as many as 2,100 units of housing along with 361,000 square feet of office and commercial development. A city ballot measure in 1990 asked voters if they thought the properties should be annexed and restricted to agriculture or institutional uses, with the proviso that voters could amend the uses via another vote. Measure L lost by a 52-to-48 percent margin. By 1991, the city launched a second study, with a 25-member task force looking into a crystal ball to render the future.

Meanwhile, St. Vincent’s began to make plans to repair and reconstruct parts of the school and to finance the project by selling some land. The organization wanted to build an 80,000-square-foot treatment center for up to 80 boys, a gym, an elementary school and athletic fields. To this end, the CYO hired land use attorney Gary Giacomini to represent its interests prior to submitting a formal application to the city of San Rafael.

A former 25-year Marin County Supervisor, Giacomini was (still is) renowned in the North Bay for his expertise in shepherding difficult projects through the planning maze. He made his bones getting Skywalker Ranch and Big Rock Ranch approved for Jedi master George Lucas. He’s known in some circles for wielding a velvet hammer, one minute charming political types or agency staff and the next minute pounding the table and using language sometimes fit for a baseball dugout. But he’s a closer and takes the job with one caveat: Should a lawsuit need to be filed against either his old employer, the county, or the city of San Rafael, the CYO will have to hire somebody else because he won’t do it.

The CYO soon hooked up with Shappell Industries, a Beverly Hills-based developer of high-end subdivisions that has successfully constructed homes all over the state, to build a 322-acre project. The developer has a reputation as being hands-on with local officials and using both political contributions and pressure to aid in approval of its projects.

Between the very well-connected Giacomini and the well-heeled Shappell, environmentalists began to worry the bucolic church property would become home to an upscale tract of starter castles, condominiums and apartments that would make an already crowded Highway 101 even more impossible to navigate. They also worried that wetlands and wildlife habitat would be destroyed and the last remaining viewscape running from Highway 101 to the bay would be lost forever.

By 1998, the properties had garnered even more attention and sparked even more debate. The city and county historically signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU—a legal document that spells out how two agencies or entities will approach an issue to make a decision) to work together to study the properties. The deal, cut by Marin Supervisors John Kress and Steve Kinsey working with San Rafael Mayor Al Boro and other members of the city council, is that the city would be the lead agency as it’s likely to annex the property and have to serve the residents should any development occur. Kress was invested politically in that St. Vincent’s/Silveira was in his district and he was a lame duck supervisor; he no longer had to worry about holding onto his office or even count on support from others on the board. Instead, he and Kinsey went direct to the city with an offer to help out.

The agreement gave both sides political cover, took the issue off the immediate agendas of both the city and county and put the onus for a final answer on a new blue ribbon committee. That 20-member advisory group—representing a cross-section of interests from landowners to environmentalists to affordable housing advocates and neighborhood residents—met in a highly organized effort over the course of two years. In early 2000, the committee emerged with recommendations for a range of development that included 500 to 1,800 units of housing, with 20 percent being non-market rate. In May of the same year, the city and the county accepted the recommendations.

False starts

Little changed immediately, but in March 2002, Shappell and St. Vincent’s submitted plans to build 766 units of housing, 20 percent of which would be non-market rate. The plan also called for 124,000 square feet of commercial development and for all construction to take place on just 15 percent of the land St. Vincent’s had agreed to sell to Shappell. In August, an environmental impact report (EIR) began on the project and, for the first time in 20 years, it appeared some building might actually take place.
But it was not to be. Political newcomer Susan Adams was challenging San Rafael City Councilman Paul Cohen for the supervisor’s seat being given up by John Kress in a November election. Adams made St. Vincent’s the centerpiece of her campaign, stating flatly that any development on the CYO property would only make an already congested Highway 101 worse.

Cohen, the ultimate insider with seemingly every endorsement in Marin, a lead in fund-raising and local name recognition, seemed almost unbeatable. But he stumbled over the St. Vincent’s issue, saying he wanted to wait for the EIR to be completed before taking a position. In the waning weeks of the campaign, Cohen realized his error and embraced a no-build position, but it was too late. Adams won the election—and then things really got interesting.

Representatives of the Marin Conservation League, Sierra Club Marin, the Marin Audubon Society and the Citizen Advocates for the Preservation of St. Vincent’s/Silveira began a behind-the-scenes lobbying effort with members of the board of supervisors, urging the county to take the lead on planning efforts regarding the 1,300 acres.

As a Christmas present to the environmental community (and coal in the stockings of St. Vincent’s, Shappell and affordable housing advocates), Supervisors Annette Rose and Hal Brown announced they supported Adams’ idea of non-development. Mayor Al Boro returned from a vacation in China to discover the county pulling back from the MOU and the deal unraveling. After trying to keep the MOU from sinking in choppy waters, Boro could see the deal taking on water and went to San Rafael City Manager Rod Gould, telling him he was afraid the city had no support from the county. The pair began to look at how the city could step away from St. Vincent’s.

On January 13, 2003, the San Rafael city council adopted a resolution to its general plan removing St. Vincent’s from its sphere of responsibility. That March, the city abandoned the MOU, and in April the council denied the CYO-Shappell application. “Only a heartbeat ago, this city council supported St. Vincent’s, the Shappell project and the annexation of this land,” wrote Shappell attorney Michael Durkee to the council. “Then Paul Cohen lost his election. The project didn’t change, only the council’s treatment of it. Never underestimate the intelligence of local voters; they may just see that your only consistent conviction appears to be self-preservation.” Durkee also hinted Shappell would bring a lawsuit against the city, but the action was never filed.

Gary Giacomini, for one, expected Shappell to make a move. Better than a year after the San Rafael decision, Giacomini said, “Take a look at what happened: A school for troubled kids that’s falling apart wants to build some homes in a place that’s zoned for building, in the city-centered corridor, and it’s become the political third rail in Marin. Nobody will touch it. I was surprised as anybody that [Shappell] decided to leave it alone.”

The CYO has more recently been in talks with St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco about possibly selling some land for a retreat center. The money from the sale could be used to shore up existing facilities at St. Vincent’s as well as build new ones.

While the CYO has been up front about what it wants, the Silveira family has kept a low profile, steadfastly running its ranch and keeping its own counsel. The family has always felt as if everyone—from city planners to county supervisors to local environmental organizations and chamber of commerce types—had more of a say in the future of the ranch than they did. At a public hearing in July 2004, family spokesperson Renee Silveira told the Marin Planning Commission, “Enough is enough; we’ve been on a merry-go-round for too long. Our entitlements have to be preserved. I can’t tell you how difficult it is for dad to look at this Countywide Plan and not feel somewhat betrayed.”

The family did talk with the city in 2002 about a plan that would allow for 900 homes and 190,000 square feet of commercial development to be built on its land, but an official application was never filed. At this writing, the family hasn’t made a move to either challenge the city (or, for that matter, the county) over what’s transpired over the years and how it’s affected the value of the 358-acre property.

After the city pulled back, various environmental organizations talked about buying the land to preserve it as open space. But estimates at fair market prices put the combined value at around $100 million, a figure not likely to be raised any time soon.

The county’s new General Plan draft calls for no more than 500 housing units (with the possibility of additional units for senior housing) to be allowed on the two properties although just how the plan will be accepted in light of all of the past fighting is unclear.

Unclear, much like that foggy pasture at St. Vincent’s/Silveira as the cows shuffle out into the cold morning.

 

 

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