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What’s Happening in Your Backyard? Public Records Act: An Invaluable Tool

The California Public Records Act (“CPRA”) is an indispensable part of California Law. Its purpose is to ensure government transparency and allow the public access to information about government’s inner workings. CPRA’s fundamental tenet is that governmental records shall be disclosed to the public, upon request, unless there is a legal basis not to do so.

On February 25, 2016, an application was submitted to the Planning Division for a new home and grading permit of a paper street, Alta Way, in Tam Valley, by Mr. Brown. On March 25, 2016 the Planning Division had deemed the application “incomplete.” Subsequently, on April 6, 2016, a public hearing was held by the Tam Design Review Board (“TDRB”), which is an advisory board to Marin County’s Community Development Agency (“CDA”.)

The applicant failed to appear at the hearing.

After review of the proposed project documents, TDRB made the following recommendation to the CDA, which is stated in the minutes of the April 6, 2016 public hearing:

“This is a major subdivision and should be looked at as such. It needs all of the studies that a Master Plan provides, including an EIR, traffic study, riparian biologist report, soils and drainage studies clear plans for sewer, road, and fire protection. The development of these paper streets will impact the whole neighborhood for years while it is being built, and needs to be carefully planned, not piecemeal. Once the Master Plan is complete, we would be happy to look at this proposal again.”

TDRB also followed up with a letter to Brian Crawford, Director, CDA dated April 21, 2016, stating, “TDRB is concerned that this Design Review request is a Trojan Horse for a future sub-division along the present paper streets.”

On May 23, 2016, Friends of West Tam Valley (“FWTV”) published one of its letters to Marin County Planning Division, Project Manager, Alicia Guidice, on the Marin Post stating our concerns, regarding the “Brown Design Review” and the proposed development (to get more background on this story, read that letter by clicking here).

Subsequently on June 2, 2016, the County notified the applicant that the application “expired.” FWTV understood that the applicant had simply given up on an apparent plan to attempt to conceal a large scaled development proposal. This plan was apparently to “piecemeal” the overall development into a series of single family home applications, as the Tam Design Review Board had alleged. However, we were to find out that we were wrong about the "giving up" part.

Unbeknown to the general public or the Tam Design Review Board, on June 1, 2016 the day before the initial application expired, the Department of Public Works (“DPW”) received a separate grading permit application for the extension of Alta Way road (without any mention of new homes) from what appears to be the very same applicant/developers. Months later on August 8, 2016, this separate grading permit application was discovered (there was no public notice) only as the result of the diligent monitoring of the situation by FWTV members.

This separate application is still pending approval, which could happen at any time.

There are two paper roads involved with the Alta Way extension-grading permit application – Alta Way and Fairview Avenue. These paper roads surround a steep hillside encompassing a four acre area comprised of 32 vacant parcels, which were all created on an antiquated 1919 subdivision map. According to the Marin County Community Development Agency, this 1919 map remains the baseline for future development of this area, even though it no longer complies with current zoning or development ordinances.

It should be noted that in 1919, subdivision map parcels were typically just ‘drawn’ orthographically (like looking down from the sky) with no real consideration given to the topography, geology, traffic or how future development might impact the environment, infrastructure, public safety, etc.

It is equally important to note that in the almost 100 years since the antiquated map was created, the surrounding areas of Tam Valley have become fully developed. Much has changed since the 100 year-old map was created, specifically related to our knowledge about the local geology (i.e., landslides) and environmental impacts, all of which would lead any reasonable observer to conclude that the area can no longer support the large scale development originally contemplated. In addition, these four acres on Alta Way and Fairview Avenue are now “boxed in” with potentially only one-way egress from traffic-congested Shoreline Highway.

Due to such issues, appellate court decisions and the County Paper Road Ordinance strongly indicate that the 1919 Subdivision Map does not create legal lots in this area, meaning development approvals cannot be made by the County.

As a result of our concern and with the assistance of Community Venture Partners, FWTV engaged environmental and municipal law attorney, Edward Yates, Esq. to file a formal request under the California Public Records Act, to obtain copies of all documents pertaining to this future development, the grading permit application and the myriad of parcel ownership interests. That request was filed on September 10, 2016. For reasons that remain unclear, the County failed to fully respond to our request. Though some documents were produced, many that were requested were not.

Over the following five months, Mr. Yates made two separate requests and repeatedly asked Deputy County Counsel Stephen Raab, for copies of all documents related to the Alta Way Extension application. These requests were not fulfilled. Finally, on February 8, 2017, Mr. Yates sent a letter to Mr. Raab, requesting copies of all documents not yet provided be made available, and that these documents and records be provided by no later than February 20, 2017.

Again, the Deputy County Counsel failed to respond.

On February 23, 2017, FWTV received notice that the CDA was initiating an Initial Study for the Alta Way road extension, noting that “…ten (10) parcels that will potentially be developed in the future….” Subsequently, on March 7, 2017 despite the concerns of FWTV, the Marin County Board of Supervisors approved the hiring of an independent consultant to prepare the Initial Study for the Alta Way extension.

All of this added extreme urgency to our ability to obtain the documents that we had been requesting informally and then formally, for more than half a year. The Initial Study is now underway and FWTV has yet to fully obtain copies of related documents and building plans.

The initiation of the Initial Study for the Alta Way road extension ignores the very real concerns and recommendations of Tam Design Review Board, and the concerns of community members such as the FWTV. It is simply impossible for the CDA fully assess the cumulative impacts of a project of this scope and magnitude on the environment and the health and safety of neighboring residents, without a new Master Plan, a new Subdivision Map (which conforms to all current standards and regulations), and a complete Environmental Impact Report.

In light of all this, the Friends of West Tam Valley were left with no options but to request that Mr. Yates file a Petition for Writ of Mandate against the County of Marin to enforce our rights as citizens of the State of California, to have access to all relevant documentation, as provided under the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”).

As Ed Yates noted, "The County not only failed to provide many of the requested publicly-owned records but also failed to offer FWTV any basic assistance in finding the missing records."

A copy of that Petition is attached below.

The Friends of West Tam Valley is a grassroots community organization created to provide a forum to discuss land use and development issues affecting our community, to communicate more effectively our concerns to government decision makers, and to advocate for solutions that do not overly impact our neighborhoods and infrastructure, now and in the future.