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City of Mill Valley

Homeowners won the garage exemption battle last night but…

Last night (Monday, January 6th), the homeowner’s and taxpayers of Mill Valley won the day, to preserve the Mill Valley garage FAR exemption, but not the battle to defend single-family home ownership rights.

Thank you to all Mill Valley residents who called, wrote, and emailed to let the city know they did not approve of the proposed changes to the Mill Valley zoning code that effected the overall allowable size of single-family homes.

At the City Council hearing, the Council voted to retain the zoning code section that allows homeowners to have a 500 square foot garage that is not calculated as habitable space in their home’s total allowable buildable square footage. The City Council approved the extension of the Interim Urgency Ordinance but separated out the section about the garage FAR (floor area ratio) exemption and remanded that issue back to the Planning Commission for further study, tentatively set for January 28th.

We are grateful to have a reprieve, but the position of Community Venture Partners is that this issue should never have been included in their discussions, in the first place. There is no reasonable relationship or legal nexus between the new state housing laws about ADUs (accessory dwelling units) that were recently passed and the reduction of existing resident's property rights: the existing garage FAR exemption.

The issue should be dropped from this discussion.

The garage exemption’s history

The idea of reducing property rights to achieve certain zoning and density goals has been with us since early 1994. At that time, the City was afraid that housing prices were getting too high (even though the average house cost about $325,000 at that time). So, they decided to down-zone Sycamore and Tam Park (the so-called “Triangle Neighborhoods" in the flats between Blithedale, Miller, Camino Alto, and downtown) in order to preserve those homes for “starter” housing and because, in the opinion of several Council Members, it would preserve all the” cute little homes.”

This was notwithstanding the fact that this provision would not impact any of the homes in the hills, which happened to be where all the council members resided at that time.

As you might expect, this did not sit well with the hundreds of residents who had bought those "little" homes with the intention of making a substantial investment in renovating and enlarging them to accommodate their growing families.

In response, community members began to immediately circulate a petition (door to door, there was no online), which garnered almost 500 homeowner’s signatures in less than two weeks. The petition was presented to Council, along with the threat of a class action lawsuit, and as a result, the down-zoning idea was buried.

Later in the 1990s a commission was created to study the so-called “garage exemption” as it existed in the entire city, and commission group concluded that it should remain. Common sense dictated that counting uninhabitable space as habitable space made little sense. And in the flatlands, where lots were very small, elimination of the garage exemption would be too restrictive on the house sizes that a new breed of homeowners, with bigger families, needed.

But then like a horror movie monster that just seems to never die -- and because Mill Valley's constant staff turnover makes it bad at retaining "institutional memory" -- the idea was resurrected again in 2013, but once again it was thankfully discarded.

Today, the excuse is that it is being proposed in response the myriad of housing laws that were passed in California, and signed into law in October of 2019, which has sent cities across the state into a panic to find ways to deal with it.

The Golden State is killing the goose

Single family home ownership has been the backbone of the U.S. economy and the foundational investment of time, money, and commitment of the middle class for more than a century. And it has been the proverbial “golden goose” of the California dream and economic miracle. It is the efforts of individual homeowners to build, improve, and maintain their property that is one of the reasons for the high property values in Marin cities: homeowner’s whose high taxes have paid for all the public services, schools, roads, life safety agencies, infrastructure, and more.

It’s not politicians who create that value. To argue otherwise is a fool’s errand.

The truth is that these new state laws are politically motivated, badly written, and they will have long-lasting negative impacts on California residents for decades to come. The addition of top-down rent control, by-right provisions that have now effectively outlawed single-family zoning,[1] and the removal of local control of zoning and planning, combined with the enormous local tax increases that will be required to pay for all this, will ultimately cost California cities their economic vitality if not their solvency.

But, Marin County cities have been warned for years, by community activists, that these laws were coming, yet they chose to do absolutely nothing about it. And they are still being warned now that even more draconian laws are coming behind them (SB-50), yet they continue to do absolutely nothing about it.

As the smoke settles

At last night’s meeting, a number of commentators noted that if the City had told the public about the true, potential financial consequences of what was proposed, the council chambers would have been SRO. The response to the Marin Post article bears that out.

I learned of Monday night’s Agenda Item #8, at 5:30 pm on the evening before. By 8:00 pm, I published a hastily written “Alert” article on the Marin Post. By noon on Monday, the article had over 400 hits on the Marin Post (by two days later 650 hits). The first day of publication almost set a record for overall readership.

If the City had sent a direct notice to all the Mill Valley homeowners and honestly told them, how the elimination of a long-standing zoning provision that allowed their garage to not count as “habitable space,” was going to impact their hopes, dreams, remodel plans, and the valuation of their property, there would have been 4,000 people reading the Marin Post article, not 400.

By chance and apropos of this, a realtor came to my door this week, promoting his company, and we got to talking. He lives in Mill Valley, so I asked him what he thought of the city’s proposal to eliminate the garage exemption. He hadn’t heard about it. So, I explained it to him. His immediate reaction was to start doing a mental calculation of the impacts on value appraisals of homes.

Anything that effects the property value of homeowners is of great public interest. Yet the city council seems oblivious to the potential impact on valuations if the garage exemption is eliminated.

The article did its job, to wake up the community at the 11th hour and 11th minute to speak out and be aware. The city continues to do an awful job of honestly explaining to the public, what they are really doing and how much it will financially impact residents.

But a certain city council member did not see it this way.

Find someone to blame

On Tuesday morning, the day after the public hearing, I got a call from a Mill Valley council member. Their identity will be remain anonymous. From here on out, they will be referred to as CM (council member).

CM made it known immediately that the council was not happy with my Marin Post article and that I was to blame for all the fuss. CM whined to me about how hard the city works and how unfair I was for me to criticize them. CM also accused me of alarming people unnecessarily and that my statements were "over the top."

My response was, I had less than 24 hours to alert the entire town about something that has been brewing for six months. And that properly alerting the town was the city's responsibility, not mine. I needed to get people’s attention fast so I cut the chase and left the formalities to others.

CM accused me of being an alarmist because I failed to tell people that the ordinance change they were voting on was an “interim” change and not yet set in stone.

Let's examine the veracity of that claim.

Anyone who’s gotten involved in the political process in Marin County over the past few decades knows full well that when a government calls something “interim” or a “study” they are usually working to justify its final approval. I have never seen a “study” result in anything other than the proposal it was originally intended to provide support for, unless the community got involved, protested or sued to stop it.

First it’s called a "proposal" that is not publicized or clearly explained in notices or is buried in pages of text, and the next thing you know it’s been quietly being adopted as the law as a hearing consent calendar item. And if a taxpayer complains about it, after the fact, they are chastised for not “participating” in the public process.

The “Interim” ordinance in Mill Valley has now had two readings and two votes. The city might have come back and tried to approve it as permanent on a consent calendar in the future, and who would notice? This is similar to what happened with the Miller Avenue Parkway plan, which only ended up having a public hearing because residents caught the city in the act of quietly approving its finality without adequate consideration of emergency evacuation impacts.

CM then claimed that the city is helpless because the state says they have to do something about housing. While it is certainly true that we are being pressured to "do something" about housing, I asked, what is the legal nexus between the state ADU laws and the existing property rights to the FAR garage exemption (in other words, why pick on the garage exemption)?

CM had no answer to that, but said that the city is afraid of big development on lots so they have to reduce development rights of single-family homes.

So, I asked CM if it's fair to put the "solution" to dealing with bad state laws on the backs of single-family homeowners, whose investment and improvement of their homes, and the taxes they've paid have made this city what it is.

CM had no answer to that.

So, I asked CM, why the city has done nothing about these laws, which many of us have been warning them about for many years. And why, if my little nonprofit can find the means to sue the government, why hasn't the city done anything to mount a legal challenge against these state laws that are clearly unconstitutional and unsustainable, as several other California cities are doing[2]?

CM had no answer. But CM said that they didn't bother being our city's representative at ABAG because they felt it was a waste of their time.

Really? I thought that was their job, to go and fight for us and our city's needs.

CM ended by saying that “single-family zoning is over in California” and that CM had "given up on that issue."


Is this the kind of City Council we want representing us?

[1] One can now build three units on any single-family zoned lot, by right, and disregard local parking, setbacks, and height restrictions.

[2] The California State Constitution clearly grants local governments the right to control zoning and planning.

Bob Silvestri is a Mill Valley resident and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area. Please consider DONATING TO CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of Marin residents.