How the Mill Valley City Council embraced a questionable choice and made an even worse decision
The March 4th Mill Valley City Council meeting began its deliberation of the final design of the Parkway “room,” with the City Manager stating that “all options were on the table.” According to the Staff Report, this included the originally approved Streetscape Plan with two traffic travel lanes in each direction. However, the rest of the evening focused almost exclusively on one lane proposals. This excluded options suggested by members of the public, which would have adhered to the State Fire Code minimum street right-of-way width requirements.
To conclude that options proposed by the public are not appropriate is certainly the right of elected bodies. To summarily dismiss ideas that diverge from preconceived notions, undermines our faith in public process. But, perhaps what is most disappointing about the entire Parkway Pilot Project process is that on the whole, the Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan project is otherwise a truly remarkable, collaborative accomplishment by this community, the benefits of which will live on for decades to come.
It might surprise biking advocates to know that the original impetus for the Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan (which was first called the Miller Avenue Precise Plan) was the unanimous support for safer bike lanes on Miller Avenue, from Camino Alto to downtown Mill Valley. In fact, this was the only issue that has been agreed upon by all who participated in almost two decades of public planning process.
It might also surprise some that long before some of our Councilmembers and most of our planning staff were even out of college, a core group of individuals, who have been critics of the one lane solution, contributed more than most to that process, by participating in public hearings and sitting on a variety of planning committees and commissions stretching back 17 years to the original Citizens Advisory Committee (the “CAC”) in 2002. Their contributions and those of all others who served alongside them and attended the first planning workshops, were essential in shaping the design of the Miller Avenue Streetscape. In fact, had it not been for those individuals and the voices of powerful grassroots organizations like Friends of Mill Valley, it is entirely possible that Miller Avenue would be indistinguishable from downtown Walnut Creek, today.
Part of the street’s original planning process included milestones that were memorialized along the way. In a report to the City on May 15, 2002, after serving many months as a member of the CAC, I commented that
The last CAC meeting was a bit of a watershed. Controversial proposals like the one lane roadway and the removal of the median parking were set aside and a basic appreciation of Miller Avenue’s [existing] virtues seemed to be reinstated.
The letter when on to propose a plan that conceptualized Miller Avenue as a series of distinct “rooms,” with names based on their inherent characteristics: The Gateway (Camino Alto to Reed), Main Street (Reed to Willow), The Parkway (Willow to Millwood) and the Passage (Millwood to downtown). However, when the City presented the final Miller Avenue Precise Plan in 2007, it included a massive up-zoning to incentivize mid-rise development (up to six stories tall).
This met with widespread opposition and public petitions with signatures by almost 1,500 Mill Valley residents (not dissimilar from the 930+ Mill Valley residents who signed the petition against the Parkway Pilot Project). This level of opposition is significant in a town where only about 3,500 people vote in City Council elections. Yet, in response, the City Council and Planning Director retreated into a bunker mentality, whereby its collective mind-share became exclusively focused on “killing the messengers,” because the City was increasingly unable to dispute the facts about impacts. This resistance became so corrosive that it precipitated the removal of 3 out of 5 City Councilmembers in the election of 2007.
Hearings like the one on March 4th make me feel like we’re back where we started.
Meanwhile back at the hearing
For a hearing that turned out to be about a decision that had already been largely decided in the minds of the Councilmembers, it dragged on. But then brevity may not have been the goal. The hearing consisted of narrowly focused discussions and a well-orchestrated process that encouraged supporters, overtly dismissed opposing comments and third party, expert opinions, and lobbing a series of soft-ball questions at the City’s Fire Chief. It appeared to be an effort to create a record in the minutes that would stand up to future, legal challenges to the approval of the one lane plan. If so, they did not do a very good job of it.
During these proceedings, Assistant City Attorney advised the Council that they had no obligation to consider any CEQA impacts, because they were only amending a past CEQA document. This was incorrect. But the inference was that consideration of hazard impacts on residents resulting from failing to meet State Fire Codes need not be addressed.
An addendum to a Mitigated Negative Declaration is not license to ignore CEQA assessments of potentially significant impacts, when a project design has changed. And in this case, the potential hazards created by a failure to adhere to the State Fire Code and FEMA guidelines that require 20 feet of free and clear roadway for emergency responder access (ingress) and effective emergency evacuation (egress) cannot be violated without legal jeopardy, unless specific findings are made to support that determination. However, such findings were not made at the hearing. The City Council settled for comments about their “feelings” and vague and unsubstantiated opinions of the Fire Chief.
Regarding whether or not there was enough room for emergency responder’s vehicles in the one lane plans, Councilmembers simply stated that in their opinion, there was enough room, and everyone else just went along. They made this determination without any data or studies or even accurate street measurements, on nothing more than a photo of two police cars parked side by side in the road.
The Staff Report advised the Council to adopt what was called “Option #5.” This remained a “one lane” each way design, but it partially acknowledged the State Fire Code requirement for the “egress” traffic traveling out of town. It did this by eliminating the planned curbside parking on the outbound side, which had narrowed the road to less than the required 20 foot standard. That standard was in fact, the main legal point at hand.
In fact, all the City Council really had to do that night was to direct staff to only present options that respected the 20 foot requirement and that would have been that. And based on what they had in hand, all they had to do to satisfy that requirement was to adopt Option #5 and remove parking spaces at pinch points and they would have been done. This would have minimally addressed CEQA and more importantly the future financial liability exposure in case the one lane plan resulted in injury and deaths in a catastrophic evacuation event.
Instead, perhaps because they were so focused on dismissing their critics on the record, they took a flawed idea (Option #5) and turned it into something worse.
The Council chose to retain parallel parking on both sides of Miller Avenue (disregarding the 20 foot legal requirement) and added a provision whereby one person, the Mill Valley Fire Chief, will now be responsible for having the prescience to determine which days of the year represent potentially catastrophic wildfire days – in effect, becoming solely responsible for the fate of all Mill Valley residents. And on those “red flag” days, it will be the City’s job to somehow notify the public and to enforce a no-parking provision on the outbound side of Miller Avenue in the Parkway section.
Councilmember McCauley questioned how this plan was in any way practical. What happens, he asked, if people happen to leave their cars there on days that end up being the day of a catastrophic event (they are at work, out of town, took the bus, or their car needs repair)? Giving them a ticket won’t help and how does the city tow those cars, when so many other cars are jamming the street trying to get out of town?
Catastrophic wildfires have a habit of happening on very short notice.
When asked about this, we were told by the Fire Chief that it would be handled by law enforcement. In fact, toward the end of the hearing both the Fire Chief and several Councilmembers flatly stated that it is unrealistic to think that we can actually evacuate people in Mill Valley in a catastrophic fire, or as Councilmember Moulton-Peters put it, “Let’s face it, that’s just not going to happen.” This being the case, they seemed to agree there was no point in talking about emergency egress or questioning the City's evacuation plans at all. So, they just accepted that we would all just shelter in place or get to safety zones, such as the Community Center on Camino Alto.
This, of course, overlooks the fact that the vast majority of people who will be most at risk in a canyon fire, will have to evacuate using Miller Avenue to even get to the Community Center.
The Council voted unanimously to approve the one lane design, making the Pilot Project permanent, and voted 3 to 1 in favor of the “no parking” fire-danger plan (McCauley against). This now leaves Mill Valley canyon residents without egress on Miller Avenue that meets the minimum 20 foot State Fire Code standard, when they attempt to get out of town.
Actually, this was a clever legal maneuver by the City. Even if the “red flag” day notification plan appears unworkable on its face, it is one that a Marin Court would likely defer to. And, though it may spare the city a CEQA lawsuit today, it is very likely it come back to haunt the City, sometime in the future.
And so it goes
Internet trolls will no doubt continue to lecture me mercilessly about my lack of political correctness, perhaps because they assume my only concern is about is whether the Parkway is one lane or two. But they would be missing the point, entirely.
Certainly, there remain valid technical and legal arguments that could be brought about the decision the City has made, and that is what democracy is all about, disagreeing. And some of those, such as the project’s inadequate “project description” per CEQA are actionable. But in my opinion, Marin Courts would likely be dismissive on that single issue, because it’s highly technical and the City could cure the defect, relatively quickly. My organization, CVP, has never pursued legal arguments just to do so. Litigation is our last resort not our first response, which my 26 years of participation in Mill Valley planning issues attests to.
The real concern I have has little to do with the Parkway plan itself. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, my concern is much more about trustworthiness of our political process: the 17 years of public process was cast aside in the 11th hour. My concern is about the importance of adhering to the rule of law.
Many of us who’ve been involved in city affairs for decades have watched the deterioration of our public process in some disbelief. With the Pilot Project itself we’ve witnessed our own local, Progressive version of the same kind of scheming, grandstanding and maneuvering that Trump is using to get “The Wall.” In both cases, the proponents believe that the ends justify the means, no matter what those means might be.
In fact, over-stepping authority and disregarding legal norms and traditions (such as no Mill Valley Councilmembers running for a third term) is becoming the norm everywhere, and no one seems to really care.
Government and quasi-government agencies routinely lie about their operations and expenses in order to get voters to levy taxes on themselves. We see the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (an unelected agency) claiming it can levy regional taxes and fees without a public vote, and brazenly threaten to bankrupt The Association of Bay Area Governments (a representative body) in order to strip it of its regional planning role. We see State Senators passing legislation and our Governor bringing lawsuits that violate the State Constitution in trying to usurp locally elected governments ' control of local planning and zoning authority. And all because they know they can get away with it: that bullying and skirting the law is increasingly tolerated. The conceit is that it's all okay so long as it's for a politically correct result.
No, this is not mere hyperbole. And, it is in fact the commonality shared by all of these and the commensurate apathy of the general public that is so disturbing.
There’s been a noticeable change of tone on our City Council over the past few years, and as the editor of the Marin Post, I can tell you that I’m hearing this more and more from all sides: from people who’ve sat on city commissions to public servants and residents.
The Mill Valley City Council increasingly frames controversial issues within a defensive narrative, a process that forces a “take sides” dynamic that’s more about winning and less about critical thinking. The hearings seem more orchestrated and the dialog between the Council and the City Manager and staff sounds increasingly scripted to arrive at unanimous consent. It is rarer to see a City Council hearing these days where predetermined conclusions are abandoned for new ideas. Criticism is increasingly frowned upon and as we saw at the March 4th hearing, pious shaming and finger-wagging.
It’s disturbing to see this in a town that in decades past was unafraid to engage in difficult and often vociferous debates. To see a city turn itself into a champion of shallow thinking and for honest debate to be increasingly suffocated by oppressive, forced politeness and political maneuvering disguised as being “grown up” and proper.
Some will dismiss all this as my just being a sore loser. I guess my response to that is, go ahead and have your fun. But consider that this is not a healthy situation for any of us. Try to remember that one day you will be on the disagreeing side of an issue, and if you’re not heard, you’ll only have yourselves to blame.
The Council justified its dismissal of the State Fire Code by citing a sentence in the regulations that allows for local discretion in certain circumstances. So, they are confident that their decision will withstand a challenge. But, should that be the focus of our representatives' efforts, finding legal loopholes? This is not a game.
Coda to the Coda
We see this kind of hunkered down, defensive posture, this imperiousness by the majority vote on town councils periodically in Marin. 4 years ago it was happening in Corte Madera. 2 years ago it was Fairfax’s turn. We’ve seen it for quite a while now in Novato. And we've seen it forever at the County Board of Supervisors. It never really ends until the voters wake up and decide they’ve had enough, and clean house.
I am advised that the City has subsequently done some “no parking” re-striping at certain “pinch points” in the Parkway, to eliminate parking in places where parked cars created an open travel width of less than 18 feet. Although this is an improvement, it still violates the Fire Code by being 2 feet shy of the standard. This means that the City is still potentially wide open to a class action claim in the event of an unsuccessful future fire evacuation.
Consider that even under normal circumstances, much less a catastrophic canyon fire, plaintiffs could allege that damages they incurred were increased as the result of the narrower roadway width (i.e., “The fire trucks could have gotten to my house sooner if only the City had adhered to the Code.”), and, because the City knowingly ignored the Code and based its decision on little more than the verbal testimony of their Fire Chief.
 In 2007, Dick Spotswood of the Marin IJ referred to Friends of Mill Valley as the “shadow government” of the City.
 According to the dimensioned design plans shown on page 21, of Section 2, Multi-Modal Transportation, of the approved Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan, the roadway right of way in the Parkway section of Miller Avenue varies from 31 feet to 33 feet 6 inches or 26 to 28'-6" minus the sidewalk. However, those dimensions may not be correct. Accurate dimensions of the Parkway roadway must exist on constructin documents but none have ever been published for the public to see for the entire Streetscape.
Silvestri is the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a
501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded solely by the support
of individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area.