Marinites Debate Scuttled George Lucas Development

Artist's rendering of the proposed Grady Ranch. (Courtesy Skywalker Properties Ltd.)
Artist's rendering of the proposed Grady Ranch. (Courtesy Skywalker Properties Ltd.)

Some Marinites are treating George Lucas like he’s Count Dooku and he’s just given the order to assassinate Queen Amidala. (Okay — Worst. Lead. Ever.)

But seriously, there’s quite a to-do going on up there over Lucas’ now- scuttled plan to build a new production facility in a rural part of the county. After abandoning the development because of opposition from the Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association, Marin County supervisors urged Lucas to reconsider. Yesterday, however, an official for Lucasfilm told the Marin Independent Journal that the decision was final.

“You asked if Lucasfilm would reconsider. Unfortunately the answer is no,” said Lynne Hale, the company’s director of communications. “We truly appreciate the outpouring of support over the last 24 hours but based on our experience we realize that even with the support of the majority, the minority has the ability to drag the process out to the point it makes it impossible to do business.”

Today’s Forum show on KQED Public Radio addressed the issue, with guests Steve Kinsey, president of the Marin County Board of Supervisors, which wants the project to go forward, Liz Dale, president of the Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association, which opposes the development, and Nels Johnson, reporter for the Marin Independent Journal.

Here’s an edited transcript:

Host Dave Iverson: George Lucas and Lucasfilm had long wanted to build a new production facility in rural Marin County, not far from the company’s existing Skywalker Ranch Studio. The project would have added jobs and additional tax revenue for the county, but neighborhood and environmental concerns have stalled development.

In February the county’s planning commission gave its blessing but some local land owners appealed to the Board of Supervisors, prompting further delays. And this week Lucasfilm said never mind, they’d head elsewhere.

Reporter Nels Johnson, tell us what reaction is right now in San Rafael and elsewhere in Marin County. Was this a shock?

Nels Johnson: Well I think a lot of people are shocked and dismayed. There’s been an outpouring of support it would appear, at least from the emails we’ve been getting – support for Lucasfilm. And dismay that neighbors have helped block this program.

Iverson: Tell us what the nature of those objections were.

Johnson: Neighbors were fearful that their rural area would be destroyed by commercial development next door, even though film executives said it would be blocked from view and they’d plant a forest of trees. But neighbors were concerned about noise issues, traffic issues, night lighting, an outdoor stage, and other aspects of the development.

Environmentalists on the other hand were concerned about a creek program that looked to be a model watershed restoration program, but there were some problems that the state and federal regulators said they had with a field program, so there was also objection on that.

Iverson: There’s been some difference, I guess, about how long the delay has been by the press release Lucasfilm put out. We should note, by the way, that we invited them to participate in this program but they declined to do so. They say the objections have been going on for 25 years, but in your reporting you note the master plan for this was approved some 16 years ago. Landowners say they haven’t been objecting all that long. How long is the history to all this?

Johnson: Well, of course, Lucasfilm was formed in ’71 and bought Skywalker, what was then called Bulltail Ranch, became Skywalker Ranch in 1978, I believe. Then bought the Grady Ranch – which is the latest issue – in 1985, I think, but didn’t develop it initially and was able to get a master plan approved for a bigger development than the one that’s most lately at issue, in 1996 I believe.

Iverson: So fair to say, it’s been going on for some time. What are you hearing from Lucasfilm right now?

Johnson: Well, I guess anything is possible and no one can speak for George Lucas except for George, although the chief communicator of the firm, Lynn Hale who is the director of communications, told me yesterday that it was just too late and the company was moving on. Today, she’s underscoring that and I can read it here:

“This just in: We’ve been inundated with calls and emails from politicians, developers, and the public expressing their appreciation of George Lucas as a developer as well as an environmentalist. I can’t tell you how many offers we have had from cities wanting us to come to their community. You ask if Lucasfilm would reconsider. Unfortunately, the answer is no. We truly appreciate the outpouring of support but based on our experience, even with the support of the majority, the minority has the power to drag this out to the point that it makes it impossible to do business.”

That would seem to indicate that Lucasfilm is moving elsewhere.

Iverson: Joining us now are Steve Kinsey, he’s president of the Marin County Board of Supervisors and Liz Dale, president of the Lucas Valley Estates Homeowner’s Association, which has been in opposition to the Lucas Film development.

So, Steve Kinsey, you heard I’m sure, Nels Johnson read that latest email from Lucas Film and it does not sound promising. What is your reaction to that?

Kinsey: Well it doesn’t sound promising. On the other hand, like every good Skywalker drama, there’s always that last minute of hope and effort and I’ve been in direct communication with some of the most senior staff at Lucasfilm within the last 12 hours and they have made it clear to me that George Lucas has not spoken. In all decisions related to Skywalker property, the final word is from the boss.

So we’re putting all of our efforts into communicating with him, we’re forwarding every communication we have – both good and bad – and let me just say, they’ve been overwhelmingly supportive of the proposal, and we’ve made other offers as well on the part of our Board of Supervisors to stand with them, to push back on litigation from unwarranted sources, to break through the regulatory gridlock that he sees outside of the county’s process. View Larger Map

Lucas Valley in Marin County.

 

Iverson: And describe what some of those possibilities are – what’s new on the table that you’re trying to put forward that would convince Lucasfilm to change their minds?

Kinsey: Well let me just start by saying, from day one the Board of Supervisors have been supportive of the project. It was approved in ’97, there were minor changes being made to the proposal in this version of it, and in fact we view them as improvements to the project.

So we have been doing what we can to be supportive but what we’ve added to the mix is to suggest that if neighboring associations are going to sue Lucasfilm, we typically indemnify the county from litigation, but we say we would stand with Lucas on the litigation, whatever cost that might be we would share equally, and whatever efforts we could do to expedite the decision making process within the courts, we would do.

We would also, and already have, reached out to special districts like Las Gallinas or the Marin Municipal Water Districts, who have in the past presented unreasonable expectations of the project and made it clear to them we will put full pressure on them to act responsibly.

Lastly, of course, the regional – what are called control board – and other environmental regulatory agencies. I think we have to move further up the decision making chains and not let lower level bureaucrats impede I think the region sees as a remarkably responsible stewardship proposals.

Iverson: Let’s bring Liz Dale into our conversation, president of the Lucas Valley Estates Homeowner’s Association, which has been in opposition to the Lucas development.

Beginning with what Mr. Kinsey’s just referenced in terms of one of the things that appears to have prompted Lucasfilm to make this decision was this concern that this would be drawn out forever and that it would land in the courts. What can you say about that Ms. Dale, in terms of the thread of litigation – were you planning to sue?

Liz Dale: No, the only time we have heard that said about us is outside of our group. That is certainly nothing we have ever said. In fact, we are quite bewildered and confused by these statements I’ve just heard, and by the decision itself, which took us all by surprise.

Iverson: So would you be willing to say, that you would abide by whatever the Board of Supervisors would vote on this, and that you would not appeal it further, that you would not file suit?

Dale: Well, it would be inappropriate for me to pre-approve something I don’t know will ultimately be the outcome. The community will have to make its decision obviously when that is decided. We were in a wait and see mode when this decision occurred on Tuesday. The process was delayed for an agency review, so we were expecting that agency review to soon be finished and then the Board of Supervisors would be able to make the decision they wanted to make.

Iverson: What’s your reaction, Liz Dale, to what you’re hearing this morning and I know that I’ve heard over the last 72 hours about this sort of seemingly, according to Nels Johnson at the Marin Independent Journal and others, this overwhelming amount of support for the Lucasfilm venture because of the jobs it would create, because of the additional tax revenue it would generate. How are you feeling about that? Do you feel like you’re sort of the bad guy in this?

Dale: Well, I think we certainly feel very sorry to be made out to be the bad guy. Truly, this decision was very likely made for many, many, many reasons and certainly the issues we brought forward were of legitimate concern – public safety, road safety, evacuation safety – so you know, I think we are perhaps described as opponents, when in fact we were just trying to seek a more perfect outcome.

Iverson: So are you saying then, that if, as you characterized them, legitimate concerns were addressed that you could be supportive of this project?

Dale: You have to realize, our community was only involved in this process and made aware of this project very recently last fall. We had very brief opportunities for public comments and the EIR review, and frankly this was really a way to insure that all the information had been reviewed and we had everything to make sure all parties were happy rather than have problems down the road.

Kinsey: Well, Ms. Dale used the words bewildered and confused. And I’m exactly that with her comments today. I think she’s already in revisionist history mode. I can pick on every one of the points she made and point to the fact that from the very beginning, the Skywalker properties invited the homeowners association out to see the projects they have completed, which are outstanding examples of environmental stewardship and good business practices.

That was years ago. This project was also approved years ago, so we were talking about minor revisions to the project. She says they didn’t want to do anything other than see the project through to a healthy outcome… then why did they on the last day drop a 50-page complaint from an attorney that’s known as a CEQA warrior with all the characteristics of a precursor to a lawsuit. Why did they say the project didn’t even belong on that property, that they wanted to move it out and suggested moving it out on to Highway 101?

There’s nothing about the actions of the association suggesting they were just neighbors trying to look after a handful of conditions.

It’s unfortunate they have threatened legal action because that’s apparently the time-stalling technique that has been used in so many instances in the Bay Area to discourage and destroy good projects with the cost of litigation.

Dale: Again, I remain rather astonished, because we have made no such threats, have no such intentions; we simply were doing what’s a normal recourse within the county.

There was an attorney who did submit a letter reviewing the issues, and when you do an appeal of this sort, the entire planning commissioners’ records and decisions are all reviewed at once, that’s the entire purpose of it, so all issues are resolved at that level and not just some.

Communities not only have the right but I think the obligation to raise issues that may be of concern and problematic to the development before its built so they can be addressed.

Caller: I’m a Lucas Valley homeowner, and I want to be clear we’re not against the project, we’re against the location of the project. the infrastructure is simply not there to support a project of this scale.

We’d love to keep jobs in Marin and do things to grow the Marin economy, but it’s simply not feasible to have a project of that size, with Lucas Valley Road being a one-lane road, 3.5 miles from the freeway. There are so many other areas of Marin that could benefit from a project like this.

Kinsey: The specifics of the location were decided in the late ’90s, and they prevented up to 800 homes on the three ranches that are a combination of this project, and if the homeowners in the area would just look around, the neighborhood they’re living in were dairy farms 30 years ago as well, and improvements to Lucas Valley Road were made when their subdivisions went in.

The support infrastructure for this project would be far less than the potential for what would come after if we’re unable to get this project back on track.

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Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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