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.