Marin developer and filmmaker Jonathan Parker’s attempts to develop his land at Miller Ave. and La Goma has been mired in controversy for more than six years over its impact on nearby Arroyo Corte Madera del Presidio Creek and the fish who inhabit it.
After a marathon Mill Valley City Council hearing Tuesday night, the project remains in limbo, as the council unanimously backed an appeal by Mill Valley Streamkeepers of the Planning Commission's approval of it and sent it back to the city’s planning department for more study of its environmental impacts.
“I cannot make a finding that this is not within an environmentally sensitive area,” Mayor Ken Wachtel said, referring to the night’s complex debate over whether the project was eligible to be “categorically exempt” from the regulations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
In an ironic twist that Parker noted explicitly, the proposed construction of an 8,300-square-foot office building on a group of parcels on La Goma would serve as a significant upgrade from the blighted buildings that have existed there right on top of the creek for decades, long before Parker bought the property in 2005.
But as part of a requirement by the U.S. Department of Fish and Game to restore the creek area, Parker is proposing to demolish the existing structures and restore the creekside. But the properties have been used over the years as an impound for the police department, a ceramics studio and an auto repair shop, and it’s quite possible that harmful substance exist under those buildings.
"We know there is lead in the soil," Wachtel said. "We have no idea if there is lead or any other contaminants under the buildings."
As a result of that unknown, that demolition work drew most of the criticism Tuesday night.
“We need greater clarity up front before a shovel goes into the ground on this,” said Councilmember Stephanie Moulton-Peters.
The discussion hinged on the lack of completion of an initial environmental study on a previous iteration of the project that included 17-unit mixed-use project. Parker withdrew that proposal in the face of staunch opposition from neighbors before the study was completed, halting a review of its possible environmental impacts.
The central issue up for debate was whether the project was categorically exempt from further CEQA review, or whether its proximity to an environmentally sensitive habitat required additional review.
“It’s a judgment call on your part,” City Attorney Greg Stepanicich told the council.
Several councilmembers said they could go either way on the issue, but all five ultimately agreed to back the appeal and require further study of the possible impacts of the demolition work.
“On one hand, the project really does nothing but good for the environment,” Vice Mayor Garry Lion said. “But on the other hand, I have a tough time thinking that this is not an environmentally sensitive area. We really don’t know about the contaminants under the structures. Without having done at least an initial study it’s tough to make that judgment call.”
Parker, whose 2009 film (Untitled) drew acclaim, noted his predicament of proposing to clean up a site that has long been an environmental eyesore but being unable to do so.
“I’m just not really clear on the goal of the appellants here,” Parker said. “This (project) is the only way the soil will be cleaned and the setback achieved. (If not), the lead and petroleum products remain right on the creek bank. This whole project is designed to enhance the beauty of this area.”