MARIN COUNTY -- A top state water quality official has weighed in on the county's Grady Ranch debacle, noting Lucasfilm consultants knew early on that a plan to recontour the Miller Creek watershed by packing fill into eroded creekbeds was unacceptable.
And while state and federal agencies' demand for creek restoration changes was unearthed last spring by an attorney representing nearby homeowners, a letter from Bruce Wolfe, executive officer of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, offers new perspective.
Wolfe recounts events and provides a timeline of permit review activities in a letter to Lucasfilm counsel David J. Anderman in an effort "to make sure Skywalker understands the issues the agencies consistently raised about the project's design, and to assist Skywalker in efficiently securing state and federal permits" in the future.
Lucasfilm spokewoman Lynne Hale expressed surprise at the commentary, saying, "We honestly thought that the major issues had been addressed and that the project was going to get approved at the Board of Supervisors' meeting." She added the company is "still waiting to hear from the water board why their staffer issued a memo questioning the merits of the project at 6:28 p.m. the night before the Board of Supervisors' hearing."
Hale said the company's consultants reported that the water board staff conceded it was not qualified to review the sophisticated creek restoration being proposed -- and
Lucasfilm withdrew its plan for a huge film studio complex, first approved by the county in 1996, then scaled back and resubmitted for a new permit, because of issues including fear nearby homeowners would sue, tying up the project in court. No one told the county board about the creek issue until it was scheduled to approve the project, prompting supervisors to delay action on April 3, when an attorney warned the evolving creek plan provided grounds for a lawsuit. Lucasfilm pulled the plug on April 4, and declined to reconsider even though officials announced permits could be issued by June 15. Lucasfilm is now studying affordable housing at the site.
Attention focused on homeowners, red tape and a flawed planning process, and supervisors promptly announced plans to appoint a citizens committee to advise on "streamlining" development approval. Thomas Lai, assistant community development director, said the staff is sorting through more than 20 applicants who want to be on the panel.
Lai declined comment on Wolfe's letter, which asserts Lucasfilm consultants share the blame for the project's demise.
Wolfe commended the company and its consultants for "regularly meeting with state and federal permitting agencies" and for using a joint application enabling agencies to coordinate review. "Unfortunately, much of the benefit of this streamlined and coordinated permitting process was lost when Skywalker did not take advantage of the agencies' comments both before and during the permitting process to submit designs that would minimize water quality impacts," Wolfe added.
A timeline of events notes agency representatives informed Skywalker's consultants that the idea of creek restoration "using almost a mile of creek channels on the Grady Ranch property as a disposal site for fill was not permissable." Instead of developing a new plan, "Skywalker's consultants invested a significant amount of time in conducting additional studies, producing reports, and coordinating additional field trips and meetings in an attempt to build a case for the channel fill concept," Wolfe said.
The water chief said that during "pre-application meetings" in 2009, state and federal agencies made clear to Skywalker that a project that included "significant, and potentially unstable, fill in Grady and Miller creeks ... would not be permitable." Yet Lucasfilm persisted in promoting filling 7.2 acres of stream channels with 67,660 cubic yards of material and "the time Skywalker and its consultants spent trying to justify the appropriateness of a design the agencies had already indicated could not be permitted would have been better used finalizing a design that would have minimized impacts and allowed the agencies to approve the project long before Skywalker felt it needed to withdraw its application," he said.
"It appears that another missed opportunity was the breakdown in coordination between the environmental review (CEQA) process and the agencies' permitting processes," he added.
"I recommend that, for any future project applications, Skywalker and its consultants work with the lead agency to ensure that project design changes are made early in the CEQA process and that those changes are reflected in all CEQA documents being considered," he said. The county Planning Commission, for example, approved the environmental report and project without knowing that the creek program was changing. The project delivered for final review by supervisors was similarly flawed.
"We cannot approve a project simply in an effort to be expedient when that project presents the potential for significant water quality impacts and the mitigation for those impacts is uncertain," Wolfe concluded.
Environmentalists said the letter underscores assertions they have made all along.
Wolfe "affirms that our concerns over the use of a large amount of excavated material ... to restore the creek were valid," said Nona Dennis of the Marin Conservation League. "It is obvious that the Lucas consulting team knew that the submitted plan was unacceptable."
Dennis added: "One can point blame for the breakdown in communication in several directions: Why didn't the county's environmental coordinator know? Why didn't the agencies communicate directly with the county?"
Priscilla Bull of Kentfield, a veteran environmental watchdog, observed that "all parties" bear responsibility for the project's demise.
"I'm disappointed that some members of the Board of Supervisors continue to pander to the public outrage, using the Grady experience to slam the planning process when they know better," Bull said.
County supervisors did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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