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Rook vs Knight Endgame? The Corte Madera Inn developer puts property up for sale - Part I

For the past two years, the owners of the Best Western Corte Madera Inn have been proposing to replace the existing 110 room hotel with a significantly larger 174 room hotel, which would include a combination of a Marriott Springhill Suites and a Marriott Residence Inn.

The contentious issue has been the fate of a small, treed, wetlands pond area in the northeastern corner of the property, known as the Edgewater Lagoon. The Lagoon provides habitat for variety of birds and other wildlife. The developers have been unwavering in their determination to cut down the trees and pave over the pond, which they contend is key to their redevelopment’s financial feasibility.

In March of this year, their proposal was recommended by the Planning Commission and scheduled to go before the Town Council for final approval in mid-May. However, the discovery of “submerged aquatic vegetation” in the pond (proving it was wetlands that required preservation) threw a wrench into the works. The Town Council hearing has been put off indefinitely. The developer hasn’t made a public comment about what they intend to do now, but many believe this means they’ve accepted that their project has little chance of getting approved.

In addition, today we were notified that the owners have put the property up for sale.[1] At first glance, it looks like they’ve given up on their proposed plan. For those who’ve fought to preserve Edgewater Lagoon this would seem to be good news.

I'm not so sure.

Even though the property is now for sale, John Zentner, the developer’s biology consultant, has simultaneously filed an application with the Army Corps of Engineers, seeking a permit to fill in the pond. So what is really going on here?

To fully understand the answer to that and many other questions, we need to examine how we got to this point in the first place.

A brief history of the Corte Madera Inn redevelopment project

Since the project was first submitted, the so-called “preferred” project (Alternative 1, for 174 rooms), which is desired by the developer and doggedly endorsed by the Corte Madera Planning Department, has included the paving over of the pond. The unflinching contention is that this is the only proposal that is “financially feasible.”

When the Corte Madera Planning Commission made its decision to recommend that the Town Council approve the destruction of the pond, at the March hearing, one would assume it was based on all the information available. But did the Commissioners actually read the voluminous administrative record and all the technical comments submitted by third party experts? And even if they had, as non-professionals, did they understand all of it? Or did they simply rely on the recommendations of the Staff Report?

From the outset, Town planners, the developer, and their biologist consultants have denied that the pond is actually wetlands. Developer supporters have testified that it is a “swamp,” a “cesspool,” and a “public health hazard.” The Corte Madera Planning Department has essentially treated all discussion about the pond as an open and shut case. It must be eliminated.

However, recent photographs show the presence of submerged aquatic vegetation (“SAV” - see attached photos), which indicates that the pond is, in fact, a “special aquatic site.” This recently made headlines when the Town of Corte Madera Planning Director, Adam Wolff, announced that he had received the following email from Xavier Fernandez, a senior environmental scientist at the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Dear Mr. Wolff:

We were sent the following photographs of the pond at the Corte Madera Inn Rebuild Project Site. The photographs were taken on April 13 when the water in the pond had been drawn down. The photographs clearly show submerged aquatic vegetation growing within the pond at the Corte Madera Inn Site. Based on this, the pond is a special aquatic site that needs to be preserved to the maximum extent practicable [Emphasis added]. As such, we plan to attend the Town Council meeting to inform the Council that they may be approving a project that we will not be able to permit under our regulations.

In plain English, this means that the Corte Madera Planning Department’s two year, review process and recommendations to the Planning Commission have been based on faulty analysis and incorrect assumptions about the classification of Edgewater Lagoon.

Many community members are extremely grateful to the Regional Board for sending this note.

According to the report by Adrian Rodriguez of the Marin IJ, Planning Director, Adam Wolff, reacted quickly, saying, “It’s new information,” and “It’s something that we take very seriously.” Similarly, the IJ reported that “Garrett Grialou, president of the hotel company, agreed. When asked if the plant had previously been identified, he said, “No, certainly not.”

But is this really true? Is this new evidence really “new” information? In truth, no. The owner, the Corte Madera Planning Department and the developer’s expert consultants, and their legal counsel were repeatedly informed about this, many times, going back to January of 2015.

So the question is what did the Corte Madera Planning Department know and what did they choose to do with that information during the public review process that led up to the Planning Commission’s recommendation?

Just the facts

One of the fundamental purposes of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is to require that decisions made by public agencies are based on facts and unbiased, scientific analysis, not on unsubstantiated assumptions made before the fact. Yet, that is exactly what appears to be the case with regard to the Corte Madera Inn rebuild plan.

Although the Corte Madera Planning Department had “expert” consultants (chosen and paid for by the developer) and legal counsel to do a proper analysis, members of the public have argued that the analysis has been flawed, and that the Planning Department’s review process has been more akin to Kabuki Theater, than objective deliberations. They’ve charged that the entire process has basically been a charade to arrive at a conclusion that was predetermined by a deal cut between the hotel developer and the town planners, long before the process even began.

There is no way to prove or disprove this allegation. However, the email from the Regional Board, with its “new” information, indicates there are sufficient grounds to be skeptical.

All or nothing

Since the beginning, the hotel developers have taken an “all of nothing” approach. Predictably, this has only increased the controversy surrounding them. Although several alternatives have been proposed, some of which preserve the existing wetlands pond, both the applicant and the Corte Madera Planning Department have been unflinching in their resolve to build the biggest hotel possible. Again, they claim their plan is the only plan that is financially feasible.

But what if there were an alternative for a slightly smaller hotel, a different design that allowed the pond to be saved, and that was also financially feasible? Wouldn’t it be worthy of very careful consideration? Well, in fact, there is one. It is referred to as “Alternative 2,” in the Staff Reports.

The developer and the Corte Madera Planning Department, its consultants and legal counsel have dismissed it out of hand. Since day one, they’ve seemed bound and determined to grant the applicant special treatment in order to maximize development and developer profits.

This is all in spite of the fact that public interest groups, third party biologists, wildlife experts, the Marin Audubon Society, and many others have repeatedly pointed out the importance of saving the pond, its ecological value, and that the developer’s proposal has been based on unsubstantiated assumptions.

Although it seems most Corte Madera residents would like to see a newer hotel, a large number of those residents don’t agree that the pond must be sacrificed in order to do that.

Meanwhile, the developer’s supporters have treated all objections as an affront and claimed that anything less than what the developer demands is some kind of violation of the developer’s “rights.” Their snarky Internet trolls, operating under pseudonyms in chat rooms, have attacked project critics - defamation that would otherwise be actionable in the real world - in an attempt to silence opposition.

I guess if you can’t win on the facts, attack the person.

Property Rights?

To be clear, what is at stake has nothing to do with “property rights.” Not a single person or organization which has criticized the project has tried to deny the property owner’s right to rebuild the Corte Madera Inn or his right to try to maximize existing development rights.

However, in this instance, the Corte Madera Inn developer is not just asking for the ability to exercise existing property rights. They are asking for extraordinary new property rights in order to enhance their bottom line. These extraordinary rights include a special General Plan amendment and a zoning change; unique to their hotel, all just so they can build the design proposal they insist they need for the project to be “financially feasible.”

They are asking for a significant gift of public rights at the cost of losing important habitat, without any offsetting public benefits for the residents of Corte Madera. Yes, they stress that the new hotel will generate increased tax revenues for the Town. But they fail to mention that a slightly smaller hotel would also generate increased tax revenues.

Feasible, schmeezable

The Corte Madera Inn developer has repeatedly said that their first proposal is absolutely the only thing they can build; that nothing else is financially “feasible.” That’s not unusual. Developers almost always come out of the gate saying that.

However, tor the developer to claim that they must have everything they want or they won’t be able to do anything at all is pretty remarkable. What is even more remarkable is that throughout Marin, every time we hear a developer make this claim, not a single elected official or town planner ever asks to see the developer’s financial feasibility numbers, so they can show it to an objective third party expert, for an opinion. Our officials and planners simply take the developer’s word for it, despite the staff's duty to scrutinize the developer's claims, and the Town's right to request such financial information.

In any case, no developer in their right mind would take an all or nothing approach unless they were bluffing. Or in this case, is it possible that the developers have a good reason to believe they’re already going to get what they want if they just hold to that position?

This behavior has caused a growing number of people to wonder out loud if the “fix is in” and some type of backroom deal had already been made with the Town.

In this series, I hope to give readers the information they need to make their own decisions about that.

Bob Silvestri

Editor of The Marin Post

Read Part II here

Read Part III here

Read Part IV here

[1] Listed by Newmark, Cornish & Carey Real Estate Brokers