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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)