Novato council may ditch Carmel Hill open space bid
Author: Will Houston
Publication: Marin Independent Journal
The Novato City Council is considering whether to drop its plans to buy a portion of Carmel Hill and convert it to open space.
City staff told the council earlier this week that the property is likely to stay undeveloped due to its steep topography and that the council could put to better use the more than $300,000 needed to buy the property.
Several council members hinted their agreement with staff, but ultimately voted 5-0 to go back to the Carmel Hill property owners to see if they would accept a lower offer.
“I do think it will be beneficial to have one conversation with the property owner prior to that and seeing if there is kind of, some sort of 11th hour deal that can be worked out that would be advantageous,” Councilman Eric Lucan said.
City staff told the council earlier this week that the 3-acre property, located at 1128 Seventh St. at the wooded, northwestern portion of the hill, has such steep slopes that city regulations would allow for only one single-family home to be built on it.
Chris Blunk, deputy public works director, said there have been no applications to develop on that property for years.
“The potential of the property to be developed is extremely limited down to the lower portion of the hillside,” Blunk told the council on Tuesday. “We felt that it was essentially protected as it is.”
Neighbors of the property called on the council to exhaust other options before giving up on buying property.
Ryan Bartling, a neighbor, said he and other neighbors were “shocked” to see city staff’s new recommendation given the hill’s cultural significance to the Miwok Native Americans, its abundance of wildlife and its preservation of the city’s rural heritage.
Preserving these open spaces, he said, is especially important in contrast to the pressures to further develop downtown Novato just a block to the south.
“Given the certainty of climate change, we should be doing all we can to preserve critical habitat and provide residents of Novato opportunities to be connected to nature, particularly to those who live in the downtown core and may not have the same access to natural areas that the rest of Novato takes for granted,” he said.
The Carmel Hill property is the one remaining section of the hill not protected as open space. The city owns two acres to the south. The eastern side of the hill is protected under an open space easement, which was a city-mandated condition for development around the hill, Blunk said.
The City Council was tasked on Tuesday with deciding whether the city wants to use nearly $208,000 of city funds and $104,000 in Metropolitan Transportation Commission grant funds it received in 2016 to buy the property in order to prevent one home from being built.
A condition of using the grant funds is the city must spend $2 for every $1 of grant funding spent, Blunk said. The deadline to use the funds, which includes submitting a financing plan and acquiring the property, is January 2020.
In addition to the purchase price, city staff estimated maintenance of the site would be about $10,000 and another $50,000 in staff time would be needed to finalize the acquisition of the land.
Lucan questioned whether staff had spoken with the property owners — identified as Robert Tuckey and Edward Ghirardo on the county assessor’s website — to see if they would be willing to sell the property for a lower price, thus reducing the city’s share of the cost. The assessor’s office website states the property’s assessed value for the 2018 tax rule year is $157,567.
Blunk said they had not been given such direction by the council.
By forgoing the purchase, the city may be able to use the grant funds for improvements at the city’s 10-acre, open space Lieb Property on Hill Road. The city has incurred an additional $100,000 in maintenance costs on top of the $1.6 million it paid to acquire the Lieb property.
However, City Manager Regan Candelario said they are still waiting to hear back from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission about whether that would be allowed, though he said the commission has allowed it for past city projects.
Mayor Pro Tem Pam Drew questioned why the council should decide whether to drop the Carmel Hill negotiation when it doesn’t even know if it can use the funds for something else.
“This seems to me to be an opportunity that we’ve been working towards for years and years and to turn it down now — especially not even knowing about the grant, what we can do with it — doesn’t seem right,” Drew said.
Councilwoman Pat Eklund also opposed staff’s findings that the city could not use Measure F sales tax revenue to fund the purchase. Staff stated the property purchase does not meet Measure F criteria of “maintaining vital general services, creating organizational efficiencies, or generating revenue for the city,” but Eklund said the city has used the funds before to purchase open space land.
Along with another $36,000 set aside by the city to purchase the land, Eklund said one of the property owners is willing to donate his share of the property — a value of at least $40,000, she said.
“I believe that we owe it to the residents an go forward and negotiate with Jerry Ghirardo,” Eklund said, adding that Ghirardo has indicated he is willing to discuss the price.
Lucan said the council is stuck between a rock and a hard place with this decision if a lower price cannot be negotiated.
“If we were talking in the terms of $100,000, we might be able to find a way to do it,” Lucan said. “But north of $300,000 to prohibit the development of one single-family home, I know it would satisfy everyone here in this room, but there is a lot of others throughout the community of Novato that would maybe want to see investments in their neighborhoods as well.”
To read original article posting, click here: https://www.marinij.com/2018/11/17/novato-council-may-ditch-carmel-hill-open-space-bid/