Tag Archives: Building permit

Actually, size does matter. 135 Balboa Inverness Park

We believe that the unprecedented size of the proposed development by Hidden Dragon, L.L.C. at 135 Balboa Avenue is a call to our community to protect its scale and character. The proposed 5,494-square foot main house is more than twice the median size—less than 2,000 square feet—of all the properties on nearby Drakes Summit and Balboa. The house has three wings, which the applicants say they need for their extended families, which would visit for several weeks each year. A massive house rarely used is an unwarranted waste of precious resources; to call it “sustainable” and “green” renders these terms meaningless.

The proposed 8,297 square feet of buildings in the compound also includes a 750-square foot second unit that can only be accessed by going through a 1,316-square foot “art studio,” with five rooms and a full bathroom. These two buildings are connected by a breezeway, with the roofs only a foot apart. The second unit could therefore be interpreted as 2,066 square feet, with the potential for six bedrooms and two bathrooms and a two-car garage and nearly triple the size allowed for a second unit. Such a unit would render the countywide second-unit ordinance irrelevant, since one could build a studio of any size, as long as it doesn’t have a kitchen, and connect it to a second unit.

Owners Tim Westergren and Smita Singh have said they are building an environmentally sensitive home and that the 16.9 acre lot justifies a large home. However, only seven acres of the property can be built upon; the rest is protected by an 8.5-acre scenic easement adjacent to Haggerty Gulch and a 1.2-acre stream setback. This means makes the building to lot ratio much larger. Historically in this area, owners of large parcels have chosen to keep their homes small. There are six large properties within a half-mile, with an average building area of 2,365 square feet.

The scale of the project also involves cutting down much of the mature Douglas fir forest—46 trees, 38 of which are heritage, protected and native trees—and then “planting a new forest.” Size matters because the trees are dependent on one another for their stability and because the beauty of these trees creates a powerful peace. While those with unlimited resources can build their dream house, they may fail to appreciate what already exists, thereby destroying what was attractive in the first place.

With its numerous bedrooms, friends and colleagues could come and use the property as much as they like—swimming pool included. The wings and corridors also make it inviting as a retreat center, especially since all bedrooms and guest “exercise rooms” have their own bathrooms, suggesting use by unrelated occupants. Because of its size and the configuration of its rooms, a future owner could certainly take advantage of its business opportunities. The Westergrens claim they have “no intention of ever renting the property or using it for a business retreat… or other form of hotel,” and that they “plan to keep this property in the family . . . in perpetuity.” While we applaud these intentions, we question their ability to predict their family’s future plans with such assurance.

Size matters because if the county permits this project, it does so for use 365 days of the year—with its many bedrooms, 14 bathrooms and 16,000-gallon lap pool. Permitting a building like this on Balboa is especially egregious, since the 33 or so families who live above the project on Drakes Summit cannot be serviced by municipal water, and are instead dependent on private wells.

Size matters because the people who live here full time are also dependent on one another for their stability. We don’t have hotels and golf courses because many people have devoted countless hours to keeping that from happening. The proposed house looks a lot like those in Napa and Tiburon, beautiful places where huge houses are common and empty.

Size matters because it sets a precedent, and becomes a game of out-doing the next applicant who happens by. The next person will need to outdo the last, and can prove to the planning department that it was done in Inverness Park. It’s ludicrous to pretend a project of this size has no effect on the land it impacts. Leave aside for a moment the manufacture and construction of materials for the project (which are huge), and consider the digging, earth-moving, septic preparation, required parking, burial of water tanks and noise of construction, all of which will be several years in the making. The neighbors are not just human—this land is bordered by the national seashore and water district lands and is an active wildlife corridor that runs, interrupted only by Balboa itself, for at least five miles. To call these plans sensitive to the environment reveals how deluded the project is.

We sincerely hope the Westergrens, who seem to be socially conscious people who share many of our values, will listen to the community and will substantially scale their project down.   And perhaps we can seize this opportunity for creative dialogue with the developers, to help them see more deeply why we care about size.


We urge everyone in the community who is concerned about the unprecedented size of this proposed development to write to: hscoble@marincounty.org with your comments.

Nancy Stein

Mary Winegarden & Geoff Hoyle

Doug & Kathy Gower

Ron Wagner & Bonnie Ruder

Cindy & Ken Knabe

Maica Folch & Dan Barton

Christine Nielsen
Mary Jo Maendle

Cynthia Hammond

Isabel McCudden

Elan Whitney

Debbie Daly & Tim Weed

Andrew Bindman

Rebecca Smith Bindman

Paola Bouley

Axel & Mara Nelson

Cynthia Hammond

Kate Matthay

Inez Storer

Kathy Maxwell

Ginny Michael

Joe Michael





Are McMansions the future for West Marin?

By Steve Martinek, Inverness Park

Does a recent building permit application presage a trend?

County planners are examining plans for a proposed single-family residence compound at 135 Balboa Ave. Inverness Park, at the intersection with Drake Summit Road. A legal entity named Hidden Dragon LLC submitted the plans for a Coastal Permit and Design Review. Many may know this address as the site of the former St. Eugene’s Hermitage, vacated by the monks in 2006 when their efforts to improve the property were thwarted by local objections and the planning process.

Hidden Dragon’s proposal to raze all existing structures and replace them with six buildings of a total area of 8,297 square feet warrants closer inspection. Community Development Agency planner Heidi Scoble has examined the documents submitted to date and requested additional information. A public hearing is pending the additional information, but community members are welcome to comment in writing. Chris Stanton of Inverness Construction Management is the permit applicant for Hidden Dragon LLC.

Given the size of the proposed construction, it is hard not to ask the questions, Is this development suitable for the site, sensitive to both the neighborhood and the characteristics of the location? Is it in keeping with the applicable Marin County zoning laws, C-RSP-0.1 and C-SF2?

The parcel is large, nearly 17 acres, and a significant portion is comprised of undesirable steep slopes with an additional area restricted by a conservation easement. Despite this, the proposed construction will have a significant impacted on the site.


Six buildings


The planned six buildings include a single-family home of 5,494 square feet, a 750-square-foot caretaker’s residence, and a 1316-square-foot studio. The remainder of the declared building area is comprised of two garages, a pool house and lap pool.

It is noteworthy to examine these declared sizes in light of the applicable county codes and guidelines. Marin’s Residential Design Guidelines state that a primary design objective is to preserve “the special qualities of a place that attracted residents to particular communities.” And note that “The primary challenge posed by new single-family projects…is to create desirable new development which: (1) preserves the scenic natural setting;” and “(2) allows mixed (sizes and styles of) residential communities while maintaining the predominant community character.” The guidelines further state: “Generally speaking, the floor area of the proposed development should not substantially exceed the median home size in the surrounding neighborhood.”

A review of over 50 property sizes using the internet site Zillow.com, revealed average home sizes of approximately 1400 square feet on Balboa Ave. and 2000 square feet on Drake Summit Dr. Average home sizes on Portola and Buena Vista were even smaller, 935 and 1200 sq ft, respectively. Median home sizes were within 100 square feet of these values, in all cases lower than the average except for the homes on Drake Summit where the median was greater.

Clearly the proposed main dwelling, at 2.7 to 3.9 times larger in size, substantially exceeds the size of the surrounding properties. This proposed dwelling is even approximately 25 percent larger than the largest existing home on Drakes View Drive. It also worth noting that the properties reviewed had on average 2 to 2.4 bedrooms and 1.3 to 2 bathrooms. The proposed main house design at 135 Balboa at present includes six bedrooms, with an additional six possible bedrooms, 11 toilets and nine showers/baths. In an era of water consciousness, 11 toilets, nine showers? What is the impact on ground water resources to support this plan?

An immediate obvious question: What constitutes a single-family dwelling? Nuclear family? Extended family? With a structure of this size proposed as the main dwelling, what happens if the owner’s plans change? What if after construction, Hidden Dragon doesn’t occupy and the property ends up on the market. Do the new owners appeal for a commercial license based on size and seek a change in zoning? Does it become a conference center, a B&B? Or an under-the-radar Airbnb property? What qualities does it then contribute to the neighborhood?


Historic trees cut


It is equally important to consider the other important item from the summarized guidelines mentioned earlier: (1) preserves the scenic natural setting. The placement of the main house has apparently been made in convenience for construction and design concept and in complete disregard for the site. The permit application states the intent to remove 48 trees. A significant number of these are 100-ft.-tall Douglas fir “heritage” trees at the main house site. The existing story poles show an apparent total disregard of these trees when siting the structure. The natural “scenic setting” will essentially be clear cut to build the oversized main structure. Additional trees will be removed to accommodate the driveway, parking area and possibly only to open the view. This cluster of trees is capable of removing a metric ton of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere. County code requires mitigating the removal of these trees, and the plan proposes planting buckeyes and oaks, but is this an equitable remediation?

It is also instructive to consider the proposed caretaker residence. At 750 square feet it conforms to second unit requirements in the code. This residence is situated in an area that also necessitates the removal of a significant number of trees including heritage Douglas fir and oaks. And it threatens a neighboring property with light pollution.

In need of closest scrutiny is the proposed “studio” building. Inconvenient to the main house, the studio is co-located with and shares a deck with the caretaker house. At 1300 square feet, it contains a “living room,” three studios, a meditation room and a bathroom. It could easily be a living room, four bedrooms and a bath. The plans also show a double sink in the bath of the “studio” that suggests a master bath rather than a utilitarian space. But even more troubling is the fact that the caretaker residence is not accessible directly from the garage in this cluster of buildings. Egress from the garage to the caretaker residence is only apparent through the studio space. The layout strongly suggests the caretaker residence and studio functions as a 2066-square-foot house in clear size violation of the second unit regulations. If this was not the intent, the submitted plans fail to be convincing.

The broader question, however, is worthy of more consideration. Does this permit application represent the future of building in West Marin? Where existing structures can be summarily razed and replaced with inappropriately sized homes? All of the existing structures at the site probably do not warrant preservation or could even be rescued, but a more creative and site-sensitive approach is certainly feasible.

County planners face challenges in reviewing this application. Approval of the current plans would set a precedent that might be hard to reverse in the future. The county is accepting written comments on the proposed plan as part of the review process. Send comments to (hscoble@marincounty.org)