Having safe and reliable ways for Mill Valley residents to evacuate our town AND for emergency response vehicles to come to our aid in the event of wildfire, earthquake, or some other catastrophic event is NOT AN OPTION. It is a NECESSITY.
"Get Ready Marin" teaches us to prepare. But we only have a couple of ways out of town. Thousands of residents in the hills have to feed onto Throckmorton Avenue, West Blithedale Avenue, and Edgewood Avenue, and then are all confronted with two anemic exits: Miller Avenue or East Blithedale Avenue.
Our first responders are incredible, but they are working at a great disadvantage here. If they can’t get people out of harm’s way and get equipment in at the same time, the results could be a catastrophic loss of life and property.
Evacuation simulations have been done but we know FireWise neighborhoods have reported about a 30% participation rate at best in these pre-planned neighborhood drills. Michelle Terrell, chair of the Emergency Preparedness Commission, commented after the September 2021 drill (where Mill Valley partnered with The Google Research Group) that “Overall the drill went very smoothly” and “we are gathering feedback from participants so that we can gain insights from people’s experience”.
Mayor John McCauley also noted,
“The fact that we have over 250 community members willing to give up a beautiful fall morning to intentionally sit in traffic is a sign of how engaged and dedicated our community members are to safety and emergency preparedness”.
So I urge you to get engaged and dedicated. 250 people are nowhere near the numbers we will experience in an actual emergency with a city that now has a population of over 14,000!
Mill Valley has burned several times, but never with the vegetation load like this or with as many homes in harm's way. In the Great Fire of 1929, 114 homes burned (and the population then was only 20% of what it is now). Today, in the same burn footprint, we now have 1100 homes! So, I invite you to visualize panicked drivers, with their children and pets, trying to evacuate Blithedale and Cascade Canyons!
Just imagine our narrow, windy, car-lined streets in a real crisis. And imagine our major intersections: 1) where Miller Avenue meets Route One in Tam Junction and then heads out through Manzanita; and 2) where East Blithedale Avenue and Camino Alto Avenue come together and both are supposed to flow to 101.
If the state-mandated addition of 865 new housing units in Mill Valley is not carefully planned with our safety being first and foremost, I simply can’t imagine this town in a disaster scenario. The ongoing construction on East Blithedale is a good example. Right now it’s just an inconvenience. But imagine what it will be like to have our major roadways obstructed in an emergency.
While Mill Valley has made progress in instituting regulations to minimize fire risks in the Wildland Urban Interface (the “WUI”) and areas designated as “High and Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones” (HFHSZ and VHFHSZ) — which represents much of Mill Valley land outside of the FEMA flood plains — In my opinion, residents should remain concerned and vigilant so that our long-range city planning is doing its best to keep evacuation routes functioning.
As recently retired Marin Fire Chief Tom Welch said five years ago in a Marin Magazine interview:
“Fire behavior has really gotten more extreme in the last couple of years. You see it in what we experienced in Lake County. Volatility has gone through the roof. The fires move exceptionally fast. And that can result in fatalities.”
Just since 2020, there has been an even more dramatic increase in catastrophic fires! You only have to drive 40 miles to see the aftermath of Paradise. And the roads there were much better than ours.
To sum up his interview, Welch added,
“Fire is something people see on TV. I wish we had folks who were alive back in 1929 and experienced the Mill Valley Fire. They could tell people now, this is no joke. It really could happen. Here.”
Mill Valley is a great place to live, but knowing that your safety is a top concern to city planners is fundamental to your security. Whether you are new to Mill Valley or have lived here for decades, it is increasingly obvious that our road infrastructure is maxed out.
The bottom line is that as our city continues to densify, the risks to our safety also grow. This needs to be acknowledged in our public policy decisions. The traffic on East Blithedale and Miller, in and out of town, needs to flow smoothly, end of story.
At the same time, we need to incorporate more housing, particularly affordable housing, for service workers, young adults, and elderly residents. Yet most of the proposed developments show little evidence that they are truly supporting affordable housing, instead, they are offering the bare minimum for low-income requirements. Making matters worse, the new state housing laws support developers. From desks in Sacramento, new laws are impacting the safety and quality of living in small cities like Mill Valley around the state.
I recently learned that new state laws strip our city of the ability to take almost all local considerations into account when approving a new development proposal, thus eliminating stewardship of our resources and emergency planning.
So, where does that leave us?
How can we ensure that public safety is at the forefront of our growth development plans? Our city planners and planning commissioners need the autonomy to effectively mitigate overwhelming traffic impacts caused by new development, which can threaten the health, safety, and general welfare of our residents.
We must support maintaining local government control of planning and zoning.
Safe, integrated, municipal planning
Most Mill Valley residents support the need for affordable housing, but the safety of ALL of us who live here must be at the forefront of city development plans. This has zero to do with Nimby’ism or Yimby’ism or whatever’ism. Arguing about that is a waste of energy and beside the point.
Burton Miller (former City Planner and Architect) and several other professionals spoke about this at the November 17 Mill Valley Planning Commission hearing regarding the Richardson Terrace project (East Blithedale). And some did again Wednesday night at the HCD response review and discussion of the proposed Hamilton Drive project.
Cities must develop intelligently, thinking about overall city plans, public safety, long-term social and fiscal impacts, traffic flow, environmental sustainability, infrastructure stresses, and more. We should not succumb to the profit-motivated pressure of developers that do not live here nor care about working with our local government and citizens.
The time is now
This is why local neighborhood associations are joining together, so that many of us, who have little understanding of the overwhelming number of new state housing laws recently passed, can come up to speed on what is happening. We can also educate ourselves and understand how the state housing mandates are putting our beautiful city and its planning at risk.
Our locally elected city and county governments are increasingly losing control of local planning and zoning decisions. And we residents are losing opportunities for public engagement and due process in growth and planning matters.
Unless Mill Valley residents educate themselves and rise together, we stand to lose all of the things that motivated us to make a life here, raise our families here, and invest in our community. If you live here, you are — and you will — continue to be impacted.
SO, IF YOU:
- Care about Mill Valley’s public safety, emergency, and quality of life,
- Want to better understand the local and state laws that have recently been passed that impact our community,
- Want a voice in where and how the state-mandated new 865 housing units in our city in the next eight years will be developed, or
- Want to understand our legal options as a community when it comes to future development.
PLEASE GET INVOLVED!
I’m writing to invite you to learn more about what is going on in our city. I believe that the majority of our residents (like me last month) are not presently aware of what has transpired over the past few years with state and local laws.
Let’s learn from the experts. We are gathering speakers that have been engaged in real estate development, local planning, state housing laws, and local zoning issues for more than 20 years. An agenda with topics will be distributed later this month by your own housing association leaders.
Join us and learn how we can make a difference for the future of Mill Valley. We must organize at the local level to join with communities statewide that reject top-down governance that puts us at risk. If you’re interested in attending educational forums and receiving information on these subjects and want to make a difference, please let us know.
We look forward to hearing from you. You can contact us at the addresses below.
Karen Holly: Next Door direct message or Karenkholly@gmail.com