Political Futbol Takes on a New Meaning with San Rafael Airport Plan

Controversial plan to build massive indoor-outdoor soccer facility moves ahead and continues to rile neighbors.

It's hard to tell who was more startled, the endangered clapper rails paddling through the lush pickleweed marshes or the hikers snagging lost balls along the backside of the McInnis Park Golf Center.

In either case, the puttering of neighborhood activist Mary Hanley’s 15-foot Sea Ray boat seemed to fade as she nosed it up Las Gallinas Creek, the marshy channel that runs from the wetlands north of the Marin Civic Center and then east into San Pablo Bay. Once a prospective creekside housing development named Santa Venetia after canal-rich Venice, the creek today is a magical place that, if Hanley has her say, will remain one of mid-Marin’s secret wonderlands. 

The problem, as with so many of the causes that define politics in Marin, is that one person's righteous cause is often someone else’s cause for litigation.

In this case, it is the presence on the north side of Las Gallinas Creek of the San Rafael Airport, the private 90-acre facility with a 2,000-foot-long runway that parallels Santa Venetia and includes the kind of under-developed open space that makes the mouths of potential developers water in wolfish anticipation. But since there are so few developmental easy-pickings left these days, a fair bit of legal prestidigitation is required to overturn the existing covenant designed to fox any such move to turn the airport into an office park.

It is the kind of fight that makes Santa Venetians like Hanley fiercely dedicated to make sure that development doesn’t happen without the kind of legal engagement designed to keep local lawyers in moon-roofs. Puttering up the canal, Haney offers a running commentary about the various local endangered species like the clapper rail, river otter, white pelican and other birds and beasts that call the Santa Venetia marshes home.

Of an upcoming planning commission hearing on the San Rafael Airport Recreational Project, Hanley says matter-of-factly “that this project will drive the birds out and we’d like to keep them here.” 

Longtime airport owner Joe and Haidy Shekou have been tried to develop the land around the runway for decades, at least as far back as a San Rafael/Terra Linda News Pointer story in 1990 that "Airport owners file suit to lift building restirctions."

The Shekous are still at it, this time using what is a subtle modern-day Trojan Horse designed to use the sweet sport of soccer as the way to crash the marshy gates of Santa Venetia. The airport owners have come up an alliance with Santa Rosa-based Sports City Indoor Soccer Centers on a proposal to build both outdoor sports fields and an 85,000 square-foot indoor soccer facility. The proposal is designed, if you are of a cynical disposition, to skirt the 1993 “Declaration of Restrictions” passed by both the City of San Rafael and Marin County Board of Supervisors.

In the case of the San Rafael Airport, jurisdiction is a weird series of mutually pointed fingers. The goal was particularly aimed at a clause in the declaration that could be interpreted to allow for “private and public recreation.” Opponents suggest that such an interpretation could open the way for such entities as “a racetrack facility or professional football stadium.”

But who in their right mind would dare take on kids soccer, especially when it is advertised as classes and sessions for “Lil’ Kickers”?

In a series of emails with developers from 2005, one interested party declared being “flabbergasted that the county would put up barriers to your excellent project.” 

One of the key arguments utilized by Santa Venetians to try and stop the project goes well beyond NIMBYism. This has to do with the fact that any such facility could be located close enough to the airport’s runway to constitute an airborne danger to young players, coaches and parents. Imagine, if you will, a group of youngsters innocently practicing a heading drill while a pilot practicing takeoffs and landings comes in a bit off course. Ouch.

But it doesn't take that much imagination. Recall the afternoon earlier this month when pilot and Novato resident in his homemade Pietenpol Air Camper, couldn't make it back to the field and was forced to fly underneath PG&E power lines before crashing, ironically, about a soccer field’s length from the site of the proposed airport development. Oops. 

Across the creek, neighbors took to their boats to see if they could assist the various arriving rescue crews and wound up watching as Giddens walked away more bemused than hurt while virtually all of Marin’s rescue manpower vied to try out their little used emergency gear. The small plane was quickly and quietly dismantled and removed, but the damage was done.

What is certain is that Mary Hanley and her neighbors are going to use the crash as fodder for the contention that planes dropping from the sky onto a soccer match was, to say the least, “an ongoing recipe for disaster,” not to mention giving entirely new meaning to the phrase “air-ball.”

The Final Environmental Impact Report for the San Rafael Airport Recreational Facility was made public in September, and the project is expected to go to the San Rafael Planning Commission in the next few weeks. The EIR is attached, at right.

Alan Monasch October 28, 2011 at 03:48 PM
I think that a soccer complex, an all-ages complex, would be just the thing for Novato, where, to be frank, there is much too little for teens to do other than engage in risky behavior. One of the best things about soccer is that it is played with passion by people from every ethnicity, which in Novato just has to be a good thing. I'm sure at least one teen, and there are probably many, who would otherwise look to you like a prospective gang member will play soccer instead, and that's a very good thing.
Dotty LeMieux October 28, 2011 at 04:01 PM
Just what we don't need, another too big, wrong place sports complex, sold on false premises as a kid-friendly activity. Read the EIR and get the facts. They are chipping away at the open space, wetlands, peace and tranquility of this once pristine landscape. Don't let greed and false promises blind you to the reality. And don't let the City and developers subvert the CEQA process once more.
Carol October 28, 2011 at 04:40 PM
Yes, you are right - for NOVATO - Problem is this facility is in Santa Venetia - how are those kids going to get there to play? And - Jackie Jones (above) went to a meeting and learned that this is a private facility - for ADULT league(s). So I don't really see how this is going to help the teens in Novato...maybe we should look at the proposed high density/affordable housing sites for a recreation facility...now there's a thought.
Alan Monasch October 28, 2011 at 06:12 PM
I'm saying: Let San Rafael have the political drama, and let's instead have a facility, the facility we want and need, in Novato for Novotans and others. I don't care how the "politics" plays out, and I certainly don't care how it plays out in San Rafael; I'm interested in the real-world result, the real-world result in Novato, and the benefit of the community. I can either spend energy arguing about the rightness or wrongness of the San Rafael facility or I can direct my energy to the outcome I want, a place for Novato youth to play soccer. I'm making a clear choice about that.
honu October 28, 2011 at 06:30 PM
As a former emergency physician at Kaiser Hospital in Terra Linda, we occasionally needed to transfer a patient to a top level specialty trauma center such as Children's Hospital in Oakland and Stanford, for example. This was our closest access to air transportation to move a critical patient to where they could receive definitive help. The fields across from Kaiser are not permitted to be used for helicopter landing. Why not use those fields for soccer. We need the airport to help save lives.
anne oklan October 28, 2011 at 11:14 PM
Putting a soccer complex and fields right next to airport runways will eventually provide MORE patients for Kaiser ER. I'm for preserving the airport, with its current low level of activity and ability to serve us in an emergency, while preserving the habitat of endangered species-- both the clapper rails and the children playing near runways. Anne Oklan
David Anthony Mayer October 29, 2011 at 12:33 AM
There is more to the story. In 2009, I ran for City Council. In doing my homework, I discovered this flawed project. I attened the Las Gallinas Sewer District meeting to hear the presentation. It was stated there is a shortage of soccer fields. Ok i buy that. But one issue not reported on is the proposal to sell alcohol as this is not just planned for youth but also adults. Why ? Alcohol sales will bring in revenue. At the San Rafael Federation of Neighborhood Candidate night, Andrew McCullough could not answer my questiom or take a position on this. Well, not so fast my friend. This is no small matter and YOU need to take a position. Also on eyah or nay on booze sales where kids are present. Santa Venetia residents be aware of Trojan Horse candidates as well. Greg and Damon as current sitting council members cannot speak to the issue. But Hoyt and McCullogh can. Vote Greg Damon and Samantha and let's move on from the same old Al Boro appointees.
Luella Wiese October 29, 2011 at 02:05 AM
"Chipping Away" at our wetlands, open space and habitat for endangered wildlife is my greatest concern since I've been witness to this alarming and distressing phenonemon for fifty-five years here in Santa Venetia. I remember fondly the days when we had great numbers of all types of wildlife and fear the future when we have none. We can do something. We must be vigilant and not allow this to happen.
Justin Yarmark October 29, 2011 at 03:41 AM
As a recent resident and possible future home owner in the Santa Venetian I want to voice my opposition to this change in zoning and destruction of open space and marshland. My wife and I and two kids have looked for homes in the area but now are reticent due to the anticipated increase in outside traffic, noise, light and environmental degradation. Marin County is fortunate to have its open space and any circumvention of this by developers over the local community is devastating. Sufficient enough for us to consider other neighborhoods. We want to express support for the community that we have lived in for the past year. Keep the airport safe, keep the open space, keep the marsh lands undisturbed and keep the voices and concerns of the local community residents and homeowners above the Shekous's desires to manipulate zoning laws and make a profit.
Mary Hanley October 30, 2011 at 07:46 PM
I couldn't agree more w/David Anthony Mayer's endorsements. Greg, Damon, and Samantha will/should give some power back to the people where it belongs and say goodbye to the " Good Ol' Boy" way of doing business in the City. Just a few examples of a long list of coziness: We have the email (from City Officials to the Project Manager) expressing their approval and support of the project way back in 2005. The Airport is a major sponsor of one of Al & Gary's pet project, "Marin-Sonoma Concourse D'Elegance," even providing the illegal, dangerous, low-flying stunt pilot performance and antique plane fly-over as entertainment. City Officials, Planning Commissioner (and Architect of the Soccer Complex) Larry Paul, and good buddy Farhad (Former Head of County Public Works) have meticulously ushered this project through the planning process despite the "intent" of the 1983 Deed of Restrictions, opposition from ALL major environmental groups and Public/Neighborhood outcry for the last six years AND all the while knowing full well the dangerous proximity to an active runway now open 24/7. (With daylight-savings time coming, that danger will be amplified.) Shame on them.
Mary Hanley October 30, 2011 at 07:47 PM
Trojan Horse indeed. This project is not about "fields for the kids," but development rights and increasing profits that only allow the rich to get richer, while the wildlife, the environment, and the neighborhoods get... the shaft. Sound familiar? "Occupy Wall Street" meet San Rafael. On November 15, the Planning Commission will decide whether to do the right thing to benefit all, or just the one. Please tell them to use common sense and find a safer and more suitable location for a Soccer/Recreation Facility.
Gina Hagen October 31, 2011 at 05:33 PM
Every single person I have spoken with that is in favor of the proposed soccer complex is *under the impression* that the soccer fields will be for the kids of our neighborhoods and that it will benefit San Rafael. That is not correct. The use of these fields would actually be limited to "members only" and would be used primarily for adults, the leagues being out-of-county leagues. I am concerned that we are being misled about the reality of what this project would mean. The fact is, it would devastate sensitive wildlife and habitat that is home to various endangered species, endanger people, young or old, would cause "likely CATASTROPHIC danger being in such close proximity to an airport runway in the event of a plane crash, increase traffic and general congestion (the facility would have grossly inadequate parking), as well as dramatically decrease the quality of life for residents of communities in the surrounding areas due to light and noise pollution (operations would be approved to 12 midnight 7 days a week!), to name a few. This should be reason enough for us to take action to put a stop to this! What can we do? We can attend the November 15th meeting of the Planning Commission. Tell your friends and neighbors. Let's take a stand and protect our community! This proposed project is dangerous, irresponsible and is apparently being driven by avarice. Not the well being of children, the environment, or our communities. There has got to be a better way!
lynn payton November 02, 2011 at 05:47 PM
We, who live in Santa Venetia, have a quality of life rarely found in Marin county. The closest comparison is West Marin where the irreplaceable peace and beauty that we experience every day here in Santa Venetia on Gallinas Creek can also be found. Those who live on creekside that have protested against the soccer field have been threatened with a lawsuit by the owner of the airport who claims he has title to the creek that is across from the airport. This man had unlimited funds to use against the homeowners to frighten them from protesting to the planning commission and the city council. He somehow managed to have the airport land transferred from the county to the city of San Rafael. He is planning an adult soccer field, bright outdoor lights until 11:00 on weeknights and midnight on weekends, a restaurant and bar. I don't think kids need a bar. The value of our homes in Santa Venetia will plummet because of the noise and lights every night of the week. I think the issue of the danger of planes taking off and landing has been covered in you article. Thank you for this opportunity to voice my concerns about the end of a way of life for middle class people who do not have the power of Tiburon, Ross, Mill Valley and Belvedere. Lynn Payton, Adrian Way, Santa Venetia
David Anthony Mayer November 03, 2011 at 02:50 AM
Try Novato. San Rafael does not need this here.
David Anthony Mayer November 03, 2011 at 02:51 AM
The Sewer district can sink this by not giving up the required permits.
David Anthony Mayer November 03, 2011 at 02:52 AM
Thank you Dotty.
Bob Herbst November 03, 2011 at 10:09 PM
Allen, you can go to letmarinplay.com to sign up as a project supporter. I manage the San Rafael Airport and am working with Andrew Rowley of Sports City to create this much needed project. Any family that plays sports in Marin knows about the chronic shortage of fields and courts for ALL sports (50%-100% shortage per the Marin County General Plan). Contrary to comments below, this is a FAMILY facility that will be open to the general public for both youth and adult play. Drive up to Sports City in Santa Rosa or Cotati or go to their website and you will see this is the case. Fields and courts will be rented to local youth and adult leagues and teams, just as McInnis Park, Pickleweed Park, and other public facilities do. Regarding environmental issues, the project will be LEED compliant and will get 100% of its electricity from solar roof panels. The project EIR took over 3 years to complete and gave the project a clean environmental bill of health. The project is NOT being built in a marsh or in endangered species habitat;rather in an upland field that we mow and disk annually. Google Earth some airports and you will see that sport facilities are common co-uses for fields around airports. Wiseman Youth Soccer Field at Petaluma Airport is a good local example. No aircraft incident has EVER occurred at our airport in the area of the proposed sports facility. Airports and sports DO safely mix together. Bob Herbst, Manager, San Rafael Airport
Ken Conroy November 04, 2011 at 06:11 AM
I followed this project a few years ago when it first appeared in front of the planning comish and City Council. There were lots of folks lining up on both sides and it got lots of attention. The opponents all screamed for one thing - a full environmental impact report. Well, they got it. Who has read it? So if all those folks who cried for the full EIR, if you were sincere that your interest in opposing this project was for environmental reasons, perhaps you should read and consider the study before jumping to conclusions.
Ken Conroy November 04, 2011 at 06:34 AM
Dotty - here you go again distorting the truth. This project IS kid friendly! Just because adults will also use the facility does not make it kid-unfriendly. Why do you find it necessary to make false statements? Do you represent property owners in Santa Venetia on this Dotty? It is amusing that you are accusing developers of subverting the CEQA process while ignoring the fact that they went the full environmental review route, paid the big price (money and time) of the full EIR.
Ron Ford November 04, 2011 at 01:15 PM
We can't depend on Susan Adams support. She is in Shekou's pocket after a $2500 contribution to Adams campaign.
Mary Hanley November 04, 2011 at 06:45 PM
Nice try Bob. The Wiseman Fields initial site location was rejected by Petaluma’s Airport Commission (something your Airport doesn’t have) as “too dangerous.” A more appropriate site was found. Your project is only 162’ from the center of your runway. Now that you’ve just recently widened the runway to accommodate the larger planes; that distance will be even less. After a few drinks at the proposed Sports Bar, no doubt your league guys won’t mind the planes landing overhead, but any soccer parent or coach, in their right mind, will never feel comfortable as they watch their kids run off to play in an enclosed building or open field with hazard lights over entrances that warn pilots of the “obstruction to air space.” Spectators will have a hard time focusing on the game, rather than the approaching aircraft. You say, “Fields and courts will be rented to local youth and adult leagues and teams” – well, that’s new information. Rowley submitted the “Use Schedule” for his league hours of operation in the EIR to include games, training, etc. for Sun-Thurs/9am-1pm and Fri-Sat/9am-12am. So exactly where and how much time will be allotted for local youth?
Mary Hanley November 04, 2011 at 06:46 PM
Nice try Bob. As for wetlands, well, they were there before you started mowing and disking on a regular basis. As for plane crashes: On 10/13/11 – “student pilot practicing landing and takeoffs in his experimental.” And on 9/14/09 at 7:50pm – “it was a controlled landing with gear up,” “halfway up runway.” That time the plane slid 200’ which would put its final resting spot in your proposed parking lot. Then there was the 2-hour fuel spill clean-up…. As Manager of the San Rafael Airport, safety has never been your priority. Neither has adhering to the Conditions of the Master Use Permit. From our perspective, your goal has always been chasing the elusive rezoning and development rights. Putting children and our neighborhoods in harm’s way, chasing the almighty dollar, is just wrong.
Mary Hanley November 04, 2011 at 07:11 PM
We have read it Ken - almost 2,000 pages worth of the DEIR and FEIR alone. Marin Conservation League, Marin Audubon, Sierra Club, and Save the Bay have all weighed in with their opposition to this Project. There’s a reason the EIR went on for 3 years and cost $300k – it took that long to skew the facts to give this Project “a clean environmental bill of health.” Besides the damage to the wildlife, the watershed, and open space; the environmental reasons for opposing this Project include complete decimation of the peace and quiet we enjoy in our area. This Project will be looming over our neighborhoods and the only mitigations suggested for noise and lights come after the Project is approved, and at the whim of the Airport’s cooperation. For us, we’re trying to preserve our quality of life. For the Airport, it’s all about money and greed. - Did I mention it’s 162’ from the 24/7 active runway? - Did I mention it’s below sea level? - Did I mention there’s no FAA oversight for this Project OR this Airport? - Did I mention if the Airport chose to put just soccer fields in, and not the 86,000 sq ft building (thereby requiring a rezoning), we wouldn’t be here talking about it now? It would have been a done deal 6 years ago.
David Anthony Mayer November 05, 2011 at 03:50 AM
@ Mary Need to get Contempo Marin Residents to vote Tuesday for Greg Damon and Samantha. Gary Phillips spoke recently and said he was for kids playing soccer (Well he does not know the real facts,Pt San Pedro debates) McCullough is supported by Al Boro. He had no postion on this issue at the Candudates Night at the Federation of San Rafael Neighborhoods. What NO POSITION ? Hell I had a position in 2009 NO Way. You were at the Las Gallinas Sewer district meeting as I recall and the Board seemed to be against this. See everyone at the 11/15 meeting. PS EIR's may have been done, but many an EIR is also ruled inadequate.
Judy Schriebman November 06, 2011 at 03:02 AM
The airport EIR is flawed on so many points it is difficult to know where to start. The EIR certainly does not give this project a clean environmental bill of health; in fact, it CLEARLY states that the preferred environmental alternative is NO PROJECT. One can also read the 70+ letters sent to City San Rafael from Environmental organizations, Federal and state agencies, and from nearby neighbors (speaking for themselves as well as the wildlife) who would be horribly impacted by the lights and noise and traffic to understand why this project is a nonstarter. Anyone paying attention to sea level rise and considering the cost of maintaining levees in the face of SLR and Climate change, would know that this land's best use for the community is as habitat, not a soccer facility. Also it is very important to read the fine print: the owner has requested "flexibility" from the city to change the facility from soccer, dance and gym to a different use at any time. This is clearly a zoning grab. For the kids? Hardly. For the birds, certainly.
Denise Audero November 25, 2011 at 09:07 PM
Bob Herbst is the son in law of the airport property owner and stands to personally profit from this project. Herbst claims the EIR gives the project a clean bill of environmental health. However, the only entity that can make any determination about the adequacy of the EIR is the City of San Rafael. And the City has not done so. The Planning Commission has continually asked the Project Applicant and the EIR Consultant for additional information. thus demonstrating their opinion that environmental review is not yet complete. Reviewers of the document continue to express concerns about the analysis in the document. The California Department of Transportation contends the traffic analysis provided underestimates the impacts on transportation infrastructure. The California Depatment of Toxic Substance Control remains concerned about exposure to contaminants from airport operations, that users, particularly children, will be exposed to. The Marin Audubon Society and others have documented the use of the site by the Endangered California Clapper Rail. The Marin Conservation League is concerned about Greenhouse Gas Emissions that the EIR consultants continue to ignore. These Gases contribute to Global Warming, however the EIR consultants dismiss them as insigificant. All of this suggests less than a clean bill of health, and so far the City has not certified the EIR as an adequate document disclosing the true impacts of the project.
Tighe O'Sullivan January 05, 2012 at 09:45 PM
Mr. Mayer & Ms. Hanley your comments are many and tremendously flawed. You depict the project as a danger zone for kids and families, but nationally there has NEVER been an incident which you say will fill out hospitals. It's this sort of one sided NIMBYism strategy to try and dissuade and demonize this project which makes me sick. As someone who has been working to build athletic fields in Marin County for nearly 20 years its almost offensive the way you talk like you know something about our communities short comings. To say that this project can go to Novato or somewhere else in Marin just shows your lack of understanding as it has been researched there already. You speak as though a "private facility" is a bad thing and say we should just upgrade the fields that are in disarray. So, Mr. Mayer, while doing all your "research" did you notice the city and county have NO MONEY! Did you also see that in the "VISION 20/20 SAN RAFAEL GENERAL PLAN" created 10 years ago that it is the goal to create a multi-sport privately funded athletic complex in SAN RAFAEL. Did you also note in your "balanced" research as a would be politician that there has not been one NEW field built in San Rafael in over 30 years. This while soccer, lacrosse, and other sports have grown tremendously. Did you not notice there are tons more kids in our community now that the predicted teen boon in the 20/20 Vision is in full effect?
Tighe O'Sullivan January 05, 2012 at 10:12 PM
I am an enviromentalist. I have voted Green, given money to organizations, and grew up in a county where almost everyone is at least in touch with nature. I spent my teenage years running/hiking trails all over Marin and never really appreciated it as much as standing on the highest peak in Kauai and realizing although beautiful my home Marin is as or even more so! When I spoke at a community meeting at Contemp Marin my talk lasted less than two minutes on the history of the athletic situation in Marin. I was yelled at & harrassed while many "four lettered" comments on how they don't care about soccer shocked me. As the meeting continued every issue the neighbors had came from a variety of spectrums, but funny enough the Clapper Rail and the environment was never mentioned. As the months went on and there arguments failed they went from issue to issue until the environment was all that was left. It wasn't until Contemp Marin & Santa Venitia advetised a meeting, "Don't let our Kids be Used as Pawns in a Commerical Develpment" that the environment was even a major issue held by the opposition to this project. They brought enviromental groups the night before the meeting and were coached on how to stop the project. I watched as the same people who didn't care about soccer claimed they had nothing against it, but we needed to preserve the Clapper Rail. Now it's the 'fear' of plane crashes. This project should happen with very little effect to environment.
Tighe O'Sullivan January 05, 2012 at 10:29 PM
Finally, and definitely not the end of what I could say is your reference that this is going to be a complex for adults and not for the children. Honestly, I can't even begin to explain how baseless that statement is. First of all, as noted we don't have enough fields in San Rafael, or Marin for that matter. Remember, no new fields in 30 years? Pickleweed was just redeveloped. In fact, we have lost fields. But, when do kids play. Let's make it simple as we know as parents, coaches, etc...its from 3pm to 7pm usually. Those are times Adults are mostly working. As for the weekends kids could have the opportunity of playing all day. It just comes down to who rents the field. To say its only going to be Adult is just completely wrong. It ceases to amaze me how the opposition to this project looks for little details and then creates "stories" around them which suite their goals. You don't like your neighbor the San Rafael Airport. Everyone gets that! But, your NIMBY attitude and the way you shape your arguments are misleading and biased and rarely very accurate. And finally, why Ms. Hanley should this 'treasure' you speak of remain hidden for you? Why can't it be shared by the many parents who could walk the paths and enjoy the serenity which will remain while their kids play? There is just so much more that can be said, but as we all know its a waste of time trying relate things to people who have only one goal, NIMBY.
John Ferguson January 06, 2012 at 12:29 AM
Bingo! If it involves development of any kind, regardless of site suitability or history or benefit to the community there will be pushback from those who see any change to the status quo as a threat to something they hold dear. Ever was and ever will be, although now there are more lawyers and consulting engineers who benefit from the wrangling. It just seems to be down to how well you can organize your group of like minded naysayers. Well organized with time and resources at your disposal? Well, that describes much of Marin so good luck getting anything done anywhere.


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