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Common sense sails into the sunset at the Sausalito General Plan adoption hearing

The recent Sausalito City Council hearing, held to adopt the final version of the 20-year General Plan Update and its Final Environmental Impact Report, was remarkable in that almost no time was spent discussing the general policies of the new GP or the adequacy of the FEIR. However, there were two issues raised by the Planning Commissioner’s, at their last meeting, that required the Council’s response.

The first issue was the conundrum regarding the correct terminology to use to classify existing office uses in the Marinship—should they be called “conforming uses” or “non-conforming uses” or something else, entirely. The second issue was whether to exempt the Marinship from study or consideration for a “housing overlay,” as recommended by the Planning Commission.

Both issues were subjected to somewhat tortured debate.

As a preface to relating what occurred, it’s important to note that it appears the Sausalito City Council is decisively split 3 to 2 between those who are solidly pro land-based housing in the Marinship, regardless of any facts or circumstances that might suggest otherwise (councilmembers Cleveland-Knowles, Blaustein, and Sobieski), and those who have significant concerns about it (councilmembers Hoffman and Kellman).

Regarding the first issue, The Planning Commission had suggested that existing office uses in the Marinship should be referred to using the wording found in the Marinship Specific Plan. The MSP refers to these office uses as “existing permitted uses”—a term not found in the City’s zoning regulations.

The rationale for endorsing this, presented by Vice Mayor Kellman, was that using the existing MSP language would be legally consistent and acknowledge the intentions and regulatory controls that are presently found in the Marinship Specific Plan. However, the clear logic of her proposal fell mostly on deaf ears (Cleveland-Knowles, Blaustein, and Sobieski). In the end, the group settled on a mishmash phrase called “existing legal conforming uses,” which our legal counsel referred to as a “tautological redundancy” that clarified nothing.

However, since the entire discussion in the record repeatedly affirmed that the Marinship Specific Plan remains in full force and effect until a new zoning ordinance is adopted, the net practical effect is pretty much nil.

The second issue regarding the study of creating a housing zoning overlay in the Marinship[1] for land-based housing was more complex. From the outset, Mayor Jill Hoffman and Vice Mayor Janelle Kellman were concerned about existing environmental hazards and potential unintended consequences, while the other three councilmembers had, apparently, made up their mind long before the hearing started—a tendency in government that seems to be epidemic these days.

Both Hoffman and Kellman presented logical, articulate, common-sense arguments for why such a policy might be ill-advised for inclusion on the General Plan at this time. One of their concerns was that memorializing the intention to study a housing overlay in the Marinship, in the General Plan might open the door for the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) in Sacramento and private development interests to try to find ways to enforce or capitalize on this in the future. A larger concern was for the health, safety, and well-being of future residents and other users of the Marinship due to the undeniable existence of significant, well-documented, existential, environmental hazards.

As my organization and our consultants have commented throughout the General Plan Update process[2], these hazards include, but are not limited to, aggressive sea level rise projections, increasing land subsidence (sinking), increased flooding, toxic soils contamination combined with a rapidly rising water table, failing underground infrastructure, lack of sufficient emergency ingress and egress, and more.

At present, the General Plan fails to contain any specific plans to address any of these threats, other than to suggest that yet another study should be commissioned, when in fact, the City already has numerous studies, going back over 30 years, all of which come to the same conclusion: remediation and repair needs to be done now and on an area-wide basis, because the environmental hazard impacts are far too comprehensive and expensive to be addressed on a project by project basis.

Vice Mayor Kellman suggested that to push forward with a program or policy that denies these very tangible facts seemed irresponsible. She also pointed out that to make this change in the 11th hour, to consider a land-based housing overlay in the Marinship, would ignore the majority vote by the previous City Council, the 5-0 vote by the previous and current Planning Commission, and a unanimous vote by the General Plan Working Group and the majority of the General Plan Advisory Committee, all of whom decided that there should be no land-based housing east of Bridgeway, unless and until there is a thorough analysis during the upcoming Housing Element Update process. She pointed out that to override all this, now, would render years of community engagement meaningless.

But again, all this fell on deaf ears. Councilmember Blaustein’s response was flippant and appeared to be based on little more than personal feelings that housing in the Marinship is a good thing. Councilmember Sobieski’s comments consisted of a loquacious ramble of disconnected thoughts about how we “went to the moon” so “we can solve this” without offering a scintilla of evidence as to how or when that might ever happen.

Then at a pivotal moment, Councilmember Cleveland-Knowles asked staff to clarify something about CEQA. She asked if her understanding was correct that CEQA protected the environment from the impacts of new development projects but that it did not protect people who live or work in those new projects or the community from hazards that may exist where a project is located.

The staff affirmed that this was technically correct.

When she began to speak it sounded, for a moment, as if she might be concerned about future residents and she was going to discuss the issues raised by Kellman and Hoffman. But, what she was actually doing was making sure to get the staff’s response in the public record, saying that the City Council was not legally "required” to consider any of the existing, existential hazards to residents and business owners in the Marinship. What she wanted was a conscience-clearing, get out of jail free card, so she could dismiss the whole thing.

Councilmember Blaustein gushed enthusiatically and seemed relieved to be unburdened by the staff’s affirmation. Sobieski remained an inscrutable Cheshire Cat.

The land-based housing overlay issue was, again, dispatched along “party” lines. The Marinship will not be exempted from consideration for a housing overlay plan, in the future. Whether or not that happens will be determined at future hearings for the new Housing Element and the considerations about revisions to the zoning ordinance.

I think it's important to note, again, that both Hoffman and Kellman seemed keenly aware that while a powerful grassroots movement is building across the state to push back on ABAG's recent Regional Housing Needs Assessment building quotas for cities and counties--with Mill Valley, Palo Alto, and Marin County among those formally protesting, locally--Sausalito appears to be blithely going along, oblivious to the growing threat of losing all local control of development planning, in the near future.

On the CEQA issue, I think most people would be surprised to know that Sausalito staff is correct. And as disheartening as it was to watch this kind of political calculation in action, it did reveal gaping flaws in how existing laws utterly fail to protect the public from known hazards. The truth is we have very few laws that protect people from environmental hazards before negative consequences or injuries result, unless those hazards have been previously litigated and evidenced by financial damages, death and/or other suffering.

The California Environmental Quality Act was our state’s landmark legislation to protect the environment, dating back to the 1970s. It was the impetus for our National Environmental Protection Act and other legislation. But back then the focus was on man’s destruction of the natural world, whereas today, in many places the issues are the reverse: man’s destruction of the natural world has created hazards that threaten us—i.e., all the environmental hazards in the Marinship are essentially man-made outcomes, including sea-level rise. We’ve yet to create laws to address this.

In our system, someone typically has to be “damaged,” first, in order to file a legal action about environmental hazards. For example, you can’t just sue the builder of a condo because it’s sinking into the mud, unless you own it, even if the builder knew that it might sink due to shortcuts in design. And, if you live next door to a building that’s leaning, you can’t typically sue the builder until it falls on your property.

Councilmember Cleveland-Knowles' way of governing ensures that the negative consequences of existing environmental hazards in the Marinship will inevitably fall on the backs of the poorest and most disenfranchised among us. This includes all those future affordable housing renters she professes to care so much about. They are the ones who would suffer the most from the City’s decades-old refusal to address the Marinship’s existential, environmental hazards.

We all love David and Goliath stories, movies like Erin Brockovich, about the little guy taking on giant corporations or government agencies and winning big legal victories and financial settlements. But the sad truth is those victories do nothing for all the people who died or were injured, and made that legal action possible.

At the same time, while the General Plan is filled with verbiage about supporting the existing maritime/industrial/artisan community in the Marinship, today, dozens of essential maritime and industrial businesses are forced to operate under adhesive month to month leases, precluding them from daring to complain about hazards or grow their businesses in place or make much-needed, long-term investments in their facilities.

California was once the leader in addressing environmental issues, but no longer. Today, CEQA is fading into oblivion because Sacramento has turned into the epicenter of anti-environmental legislation, led by ultra-progressives senators (Wiener, Atkins, et al), funded by the “growth solves everything," trickle-down theory promoting business lobby, cheered on by a YIMBY Greek Chorus and self-serving politicians.

City Councils have the power to make public policy decisions any way they want to, so long as they don’t conflict with state or federal law. And, Councilmember Cleveland-Knowles can go off, self-satisfied, knowing that none of this is legally her concern, but I would support Councilmember Kellman’s position that, regardless, it remains the Council’s responsibility to consider it carefully and act on it.

[1] The Marinship Specific Plan presently does not allow any land-based housing in the Marinship. Everyone seems amendable to more water-based housing but apparently the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) does not allow it, based on somewhat dated science.

[2] CVP’s most recent comment on environmental hazards was more than 180 pages.

Bob Silvestri is a Marin County 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.