Corte Madera Inn Best Western
What was the outcome of the Planning Commission hearing last night on the Final EIR for the proposed Corte Madera Inn rebuild project?
The meeting went late last night, ending at 11:15 pm, due to a plethora of staff and biological consultant reports, loads of commentary pro and con from engaged citizens as well as Commissioners' careful---even very meticulous---examining of all the salient questions surrounding a proposed big development project involving a host of complex issues, not the least of which are environmental.
In the end, Planning Commission voted to direct the applicant to try to come up with different pond saving alternative designs or prove why they can’t do that from a financial perspective. Chairman Peter Chase asked for some specific hard financial data on the Alternatives Analysis as required by both CEQA and RWQCB.
He asked this because Reneson Hotels, the developer, has stoutly maintained for the last three years that they need to build a large number of rooms (now at 174) to be profitable given high costs of development and construction in Marin.
However, as was pointed out last night by Xavier Fernandez, senior environmental scientist for the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board (“RWQCB”), conceivably, other potential developers - working outside of Marriott’s brand requirements - could build a slightly smaller, upscale project, which saves the pond and which could also be quite profitable. This is the test that both the Army Corps and RWQCB use to evaluate any proposal to eliminate wetlands and special aquatic sites.
Regarding a smaller hotel design alternative, Chase told the Reneson team: “See what you can come up with. You’ve heard a lot of sentiment from the community, and they would like to see a different project.” He directed Reneson’s team to try to incorporate some of the community’s suggestions as to redesign but left the particulars to the applicant. He urged them: “Be creative.”
Chair Chase also advised Reneson to draft a “white paper” saying how they intend to fulfill the missing .1 acre mitigation credit if the pond were to be filled and their 174-room project were to be approved. Mt. Burdell Mitigation Bank, where Reneson previously purchased credits, is now sold out---no more credits available for purchase.
So where will they find wetlands habitat to supply the missing .1 acre credit? This is in addition to the fact that RWQCB contends that the Burdell Bank credits are not even acceptable for mitigation because they the two areas are not an “apples to apples” tradeoff.
Chase's final instructions were to do all the above and then come back again at a date to be determined, preferably in two weeks or four. He noted that “at that time we’ll have our fourth Commissioner back, and perhaps we can make a decision (as to the validity of the RFEIR).”
Note that Commissioners Jennifer Freedman and Nicolo Caldera were absent last night’s hearing; Freedman because she recused herself on account of living on Council Crest near the project and Caldera because of another commitment.
The general mood of the Commissioners
All in all, the mood of the Commission seemed very different this time around than it was a year ago when they approved the project, given the new information which has arisen.
First, there is the discovery of Widgeon grass (submerged aquatic vegetation or “SAV”), which is beneficial to wildlife and designates the pond as a “Special Aquatic Site” (an “SAS”) and categorically a “wetlands” under the federal 404 permitting Guidelines used by the Army Corps, RWQCB and the EPA.
Secondly, the Commissioners now know that the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Army Corps of Engineers both have rejected Reneson’s fill permit application as “incomplete” for several reasons, the foremost being (1) destruction of wetland habitat, (3) that lack of an acceptable mitigation, and (3) lack of evidence or required Alternatives Analysis that can refute the assumption that a smaller, financially feasible alternative proposal, which saves the pond and wetlands, exists.
The Preferred Alternative
Chair Chase acknowledged that the Corte Madera General Plan and CEQA say that the preferred alternative to filling in wetlands is avoidance of loss of protected wetlands, through better project design. The only ambiguous language in CEQA and the General Plan is that avoidance is preferential “where feasible to achieve project objectives.”
The issue then, is what is the proper “project objective?”
The developer contends it’s to get approval for his preferred plan because it’s the most profitable for him. However, personal profitability is not a criterion under CEQA or under the state and federal guidelines. Those regulations only consider what is financially feasible. And as RWQCB has argued in their comment letters and as was restated by Mr. Fernandez last night, financially feasible means for any developer, not just the applicant, and project objective is more broad, to build a hotel, not to build a hotel with exactly so many rooms and branded by Marriott.
Mr. Fernandez emphasized that the bar for RWQCB, Army Corps and EPA approval is higher than that of CEQA. That’s in part, because the RWQCB people are environmental scientists and specialists charged with protecting the waters of the United States under the Clean Waters Act of 1972, and the follow federal 404 (b) permitting regulations.
In any case, Fernandez said, RWQCB could not issue a definitive ruling on Reneson’s application until (1) the Town is ready to approve the RFEIR, and (2) Reneson submits evidence that proves that their solution is the only conceivable project that can be built on that site, that is financially feasible. However, this is a very hard thing to prove.
As Bob Silvestri of Community Venture Partners pointed out, “The Corte Madera Inn site is arguably the best hotel site in all of southern Marin County,“ inferring that it would be very hard not to make money building almost any type of hotel on the site.
“The burden of proof is on Reneson,” Fernandez said. Xavier implied and Silvestri emphatically stated that there may be other developers out there who can build a smaller, profitable hotel on the site, which saves and restores the pond.