The parcel of land just east of the Larkspur Landing Country Mart shopping center remains one of the largest undeveloped parcels in the city of Larkspur (approximately 10 acres of gross area). Since 2005, the Ross Valley Sanitary District, its owner, has contemplated selling the land, and actually sold the land once in a transaction that resulted in a major lawsuit and a major financial loss to the District.
After past false starts, the new board of directors has been working diligently with the EPA to remediate toxic PCB contamination on the site, in anticipation of a potential sale. The date of the completion of that work is still unknown but is anticipated to be sometime in 2019.
Due to the property’s history and recent changes on RVSD’s board and its management personnel, Community Venture Partners felt is was appropriate time to assist in clarifying the facts and circumstances about the property.
With that in mind, we respectfully submitted the following comments to the RVSD board.
Dear RVSD Board:
In your ongoing deliberations about the current status and possible future disposition of the land parcel at 2000 Larkspur Landing Circle, I ask you to please consider the following comments.
What is the size of the RVSD parcel?
The site at Larkspur Landing Circle has been commonly referred to as a “10 acre” parcel. However, there are requirements in the City of Larkspur’s zoning ordinance and mapping errors that reduce that size for practical purposes. In terms of actual developable area, the site is approximately 8.2 acres of buildable land.
Developable land size:
- Sir Francis Drake Blvd. encroachment: The County plat maps show that approximately ½ acre of the “land” is encroaching in the Sir Francis Boulevard right of way (street and sidewalks). This land has been technically lost by RVSD.
- Zoning ordinance requirements: The City’s zoning ordinance requires that the owners of the parcel improve and maintain an “open space” area in the northeastern corner. This reduces the developable area of the site by approximately .8 acres. This land also represents an ongoing expense and liability to a future owner.
Further, the City’s zoning ordinance requires that the owners of the parcel build and maintain a connecting road from Larkspur Landing Circle to Drake’s Way to the east. This road must be to City standards, including drainage/storm sewer, curb and gutter and required setbacks. This road will reduce the buildable area of the entire site by approximately 1 acre. This road also divides the entire parcel in half, limiting the land planning and development options for a developer.
These conditions reduce the actual developable land to be approximately 8.2 acres.
After more than a year of research, Greg Norby was unable to find a survey of the property in the possession of RVSD.Although fragments of the total parcel appear to have been surveyed for various reasons, it appears that RVSD does not have an actual, certified survey of the entire property.This may make it more difficult to sell the parcel.
While the remediation is taking place, it might be prudent for RVSD to hire a licensed land surveyor to conduct a proper metes-and-bounds survey of the property.
As far as we can tell from our investigations with Greg Norby, there has never been an appraisal of the value of the property. It might be prudent for RVSD to obtain that prior to considering its sale.
Site zoning map:
The RVSD Board recently sent a letter to the City of Larkspur, requesting that the existing parcel map (subdivision of the overall parcel) be vacated. I spoke at that meeting in favor of the motion. However, subsequent research at the City indicates that the RVSD request was unnecessary, because the existing subdivision map has already expired under the City’s regulations.
This means that any future user of the property (a purchaser or RVSD) will have to apply for a new subdivision map in order to develop it, and that map approval will certainly be required prior to closing on any purchase offer.
Development land use restricted:
Over the past three years, there have been informal conversations by the RVSD Board, suggesting that the agency should be open to a wide variety of future uses for the land. This is an admirable sentiment. However, the potential uses of the property are actually quite restricted. These restrictions would generally not allow the property to be developed as a park or for recreational uses, for parking, retail, commercial office or similar uses.
A developer will need to address the existing General Plan / zoning designations for a 100 room hotel and a 126 units of housing with a 20 percent inclusionary component of affordable housing. The hotel is a priority for the City. The affordable housing requirement is not only part of the City’s state-certified General Plan Housing Element, but has now been further codified under Senate Bill 35, which was signed into law in September of 2017.
Certainly, the agency or any purchaser has the right to apply for a General Plan amendment and an amendment to the existing zoning ordinance. However, SB 35 requires that the City make very specific findings in order to approve those changes, which make it extremely difficult to remove the housing and affordability component.
A partial sale or land retainage by RVSD:
It’s come to my attention that at the August RVSD Board meeting there were comments suggesting that RVSD retain a portion of the acreage “not contaminated by PCBs” for an equipment and storage yard (approximately 2 acres), and selling the remainder of the property, after remediation.
In my opinion, that would be both imprudent and infeasible for a number of reasons:
- No legal map: Since as noted above, there is currently no legal map for the property, any attempt to utilize any portion of the property would require RVSD to apply for a new subdivision map.
- There is no part of the land not impacted by PCBs: It would be incorrect to assume that there is any portion of the parcel that is not impacted by PCB contamination, because the remediation work/process itself has the potential to spread that contamination. That is why it is EPA supervised.
- With partial retainage, RVSD becomes the site “developer:” If RVSD were to seek to retain a portion of the site, it would put RVSD in the position of being the site’s master developer with all the associated costs (applying for a new subdivision map, studies, engineering, CEQA review, etc.), and all associated legal liabilities in the process of selling the remainder of the land to a third party.
- Infrastructure costs could be considerable: As the site’s master developer, RVSD may be responsible for the build-out of basic zoning requirements (the connector road, the open space access, etc.), and potentially the costs for basic infrastructure (water mains, sewer service, underground power, etc.).
- Maximizing financial value to RVSD and its ratepayers: Since the RVSD’s stated goal is to maximize the financial returns from a sale of the property, it would be far more sensible to find an alternative site of lesser market value and relocate the RVSD operations and equipment yard there. Such property might even be secured by a long term lease, which would decrease RVSD’s capital expenditures and offer more planning flexibility in the future.
- Adequate development area: If RVSD were to retain approximately 2 acres of the parcel for its own use, it is questionable whether the remaining 6.2 acres of developable land would be adequate to properly address the City’s zoning requirements and restrictions, and remain financially feasible. This constraint could significantly reduce the value and development potential of the site.
- Property devaluation: Putting a service yard on a property that’s highest and best use is for housing and commercial (tax generating) development – particularly if it fronts on either Sir Francis Drake Boulevard or Larkspur Landing Circle (both prime real estate market locations) -- makes little financial sense.Any benefits that might accrue to RVSD, would be more than offset by the loss of value on the remainder of the property. -- i.e., no third party developer wants to deal with having housing or hotel rooms next to a service and storage yard for a sewer agency.
- Major restrictions / development challenges that already exist: Under the zoning ordinance, the site is bisected by the required connector road between Larkspur Landing Circle (intersection at the entrance to the Bed, Bath & Beyond parking lot) and Drake’s Cove Way to the east.In addition, the open space acreage in the northeast portion of the site must be maintained by the developer at their cost. This represents a land use / planning challenge and a return on investment challenge to any future developer.
- The importance of the ability to master plan the site: The value of the RVSD parcel is its size. It offers a buyer the opportunity to develop at enough scale to create a marketing “identity.” This includes conformity of the architectural design, coordination of infrastructure development and otherwise maximizing the financial returns from development of the site. However, the site is not without challenges and any partial retainage by RVSD would only add to those.
That process would involve a “de novo” review with public hearings at the Planning Commission and City Council levels, community input, re-evaluation of prior studies and possibly new parking and traffic studies and compliance with CEQA requirements.
Also, it’s important to note that RVSD’s current use of the lower portions of the property for truck and materials storage is technically in violation of the zoning code / map. Under the ongoing Larkspur General Plan revision process, it is unlikely that the City would approve that RVSD use (storage and equipment yard) at its present location at the site.
It makes no sense for RVSD to put itself into this position.
If the site were further restricted by RVSD using prime portions for their own uses, it will make it much more difficult to financially justify the development of the designated uses the City requires (at least 126 units of housing with 20% affordable and a 100 room hotel), unless there was a considerable price reduction.
As noted above, the City is requiring that the future developer build a 100 room, hotel and provide affordable housing units on the site (20% inclusionary). This is only financially feasible if that developer controls the master plan on the entire developable acreage of the site, including its CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions).The inability to do this, resulting from RVSD retaining acreage, would likely devalue the entire parcel.
Finding another location for a RVSD service yard:
For the reasons noted above, it is logical for RVSD to seek another suitable location for their utility yard and materials storage. The most efficient way to do this would be for RVSD to make that desire known through the issuance of a public RFP (Request for Proposals).
Why not let the market do the work of finding a new location for you?
RVSD’s role as a “public citizen” of Larkspur and Ross Valley
Over the past few years, it has been suggested that the land be sold to the highest bidder: the rationale being that RVSD is in the sewage business not the land business, so its responsibilities end at maximizing their financial gains on a sale of the property and what happens after that is not their concern.
While it is certainly reasonable for RVSD to seek the best price for the property, as part of its responsibility to its ratepayers, it is equally reasonable to ask what responsibilities RVSD has as a public agency and as a “citizen” of the City of Larkspur, and to the community at large.
The question is should RVSD’s definition of “best” only be defined in terms of financial gain? One could argue that “best” should also be defined as whether or not any future development is serving community needs and is community supported, and importantly, the extent to which future development might have significant, negative impacts on the community – e.g., traffic, parking, school capacity, etc.
I respectfully request that RVSD add these considerations about community needs and community impacts to its decision making process, when and if the property is offered for sale.
Thank you in advance, for your consideration and the opportunity to submit comments.
Bob Silvestri – President, Community Venture Partners, Inc.
 The former General Manager of RVSD
 Note that RVSD does not presently fall under the definition of an “agency” in current state law, and regardless, the RVSD property does not fall under the legal definition of “surplus land,” because its future use has already been codified in the City’s General Plan, state certified Housing Element, and its zoning ordinance.
Bob Silvestri is the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded solely by the support of
individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area.