IA meeting takes on Hidden Dragon

Anticipating an unusually large crowd, The Inverness Association, moved their monthly Wednesday, December 3 gathering from its usual venue, the tiny Jack Mason Museum, to the Inverness Yacht Club. The occasion was a discussion of the controversial 135 Balboa Hidden Dragon project, a 8,297 square foot compound (not counting the deck areas) proposed by owners Tim Westergren and his wife Smita Singh, that includes 17 bedrooms 14 bathrooms, a large second unit, several garages, a lap pool, and a plan to fell 48 healthy trees, many of them heritage and protected

The owners had originally been slated to attend, and many in the community were looking forward to hearing from them directly. However, it seems that Westergren and Singh had anticipated a small meeting, and when hearing that it would be large and public they cancelled, citing a need for more time to address the issues. Their representatives Chris Stanton of Inverness Construction Management and Sean Kennings were in attendance, as was Heidi Scoble, the planner from the Marin Community Development Agency who is assigned to this project.

The crowd filled the large Yacht Club room. The agenda had optimistically allotted 45 minutes of the meeting to 135 Balboa, but almost 3 hours later the Balboa project portion of the meeting wound down. The main issues, as outlined by IA Board President Nick Whitney are the scale of the project, the removal of trees, water usage and the size of the second unit. Debbie Daly, who has been instrumental in organizing concerned neighbors, added the precedent factor to this list.

Planner Heidi Scoble began by explaining the planning process in all its intricacies and “layers of review.” She urged those who submit comments to the Community Development Agency to “take out the emotion if you want to be heard by the decision makers.”

Chris Stanton addressed the crowd on behalf of the owners. He emphasized that Westergren and Singh have made every attempt to be transparent. He read from a statement prepared by them, and distributed a hand out citing among other things that they have “no intention of ever renting the property or using it for a business retreat, B&B or other form of hotel” Addressing the size of the project he emphasized that the main house is solely designed for the owners and their visiting extended families. Also, the second unit area “will be permanently designated as Affordable Housing in a deed” as well as the caretaker’s dwelling which will provide “an affordable housing option.” Clearly impressed by the size of the crowd he called for a “civil and fact based discussion.”

Bridger Mitchell gave a slide presentation of the plans and took the group through the various ultra modern structures. The two level main house is cut into the hill, thus obscuring the lower level from view in some directions. He also addressed the water concern, stating that the project will provide 18,000 gallons of water storage for the living units and 16,000 gallons for the pool. His use of a crutch as a pointer added a bit of levity to the occasion.

Things got lively during the comment portion of the meeting, which was divided into the primary concerns outlined above. Kathy Maxwell, who lives only 200 feet from the project, said that it feels like “a giant 747 just landed below my house.” She has met with the owners and mentioned several times during the meeting that she wants to be a good neighbor. She pleaded with the owners to scale down the project and cited the owners’ statement that they want to move to West Marin because it is unique and charming. “The house,” she says, “is certainly unique, but not charming.”

Tom Gaman, a professional forrester, addressed wind shear hazard that could result from cutting down so many trees. Nancy Bertelsen cited some tree removal in her former neighborhood that created a wind tunnel.

Amy Trainer, Executive Director of the EAC, spoke to the problem of water usage. “Fourteen toilets,” she said, “strikes some of us as obscene.” She urged the community to pool their funds and hire their own professional hydro-geologist who should assess the issue during a dry season, not now when we are getting some rain. Chris Stanton took issue with her evaluation of the problem and said that the owners are abiding by the strictest guidelines.

Elizabeth Whitney addressed the second unit, citing its proximity to a 1316 square foot studio that many people believe will eventually be combined into one structure. She called it “an insult to try to pull the wool over our eyes.” Another in the audience commented, “I hear studio (referring the many structures designated as studios), I see bedrooms.”

After each comment section Board President Nick Whitney asked for a show of hands of people who shared the same concerns. Most hands went up for each issue. When asked if anyone wanted to speak in favor of the project there were no takers.

Judging from the responses of Wednesday’s crowd there is widespread opposition to this project. Clearly the owners and their managers have their work cut out for them. Stanton attempted to address the concerns but didn’t always have the appropriate information at the ready. He assured the crowd that when the owners make their presentation in a few months that all issues will be addressed.