The trouble with development in Marin County is that it is strangely like the situation in the Middle East. In both cases there is just too damn much history per square foot.
Take for example the current attempt by WildCare to secure a 29-acre site in the hills above the San Rafael’s Santa Venetia neighborhood. The goal, as laid out in WildCare’s “pre-application,” as the initial project document is weirdly termed, describes an 11-structure campus combining animal rescue and rehab facilities along with a nature museum, classrooms and series of nature trails running through the site. In the latest issue of the WildCare newsletter, in fact, Executive Director Karen J. Wilson can barely contain herself. “The site is perfect,” she writes, “… oak woodland with seasonal streams running through … diverse wildlife and right now, great wildflowers!”
Wilson can be forgiven her exhilaration in part because she leads what can only be described as one of God’s truly benign organizations. WildCare’s mission is to help save earth’s increasingly stressed and defenseless animals from the greatest threat to life on this planet … us. Apparently, however, being the guardian angel of wounded and sick animals is no longer sufficient cover, at least in Marin County, with its complicated mix of organizations with interlocking interests and a history in which virtually all sides can be on the correct side of things and still get clotted in red tape.
Complicated today’s Marin County is. Which helps to explain why WildCare’s March 2011 “pre-application” was submitted, along with a check for $3,000, to 11 separate entities including the Department of Pubic Works, Department of Parks and Open Space, Environmental Health Services, San Rafael Fire Protection Services, Marin County Humane Society, San Rafael Planning Division, Las Galinas Sanitary District, Marin Municipal Water District, Santa Venetia Neighborhood Association, Marin Audubon Society and the California Department of Fish and Game.
A month later, an inter-office memo arrived at the Marin County Community Development Agency with 26 separate comments related to the WildCare project, still a mere dip in the pool of the official sanctions necessary to get things moving. If you are WildCare, you thus might be forgiven if you thought that perhaps the bureaucratic tangle might have been made slightly less onerous considering that WildCare had taken over the project from the Marin Montessori School, for another, truly worthy plan for a school with a small footprint. After surveying the developmental landscape, Montessori did the only logical thing. It backed gently away from a project that was simply too expensive and complex, a conclusion reached after its own joust with county officialdom. Into the breach came WildCare, possibly with the hope that at least part of the official trail had already been blazed by Montessori.
WildCare was no innocent wandering through the Marin official wilderness. In 2009, in fact WildCare proposed taking over the then-empty McPhail School site in Santa Venetia for what was proposed as a novel public/private reuse partnership. Just when all seemed possible, however, the San Rafael School District discovered that it had 400 new students to teach the following academic year, and did its own backing out.
Complicating the WildCare Oxford Valley Plan even further are a series of dueling histories of the neighborhood, that added another layer of complexity to the mix. To begin with, the small valley to the west of the Marin Civic Center, called the Oxford Valley was the site of at least one Miwok Indian village, called Ewu, and several possibly sacred shell mound sites that brought California’s powerful Native American organizations into the mix.
In multi-cultural Marin, neighbors in Oxford Valley periodically held Indian “sweats” which, along with the discoveries by local activists were able to bring the site to the attention of organizations like the Miwok Archeological Preserve of Marin. MAPOM is an organization which funds and runs historical “digs” and related cultural programs designed, according to the group’s charter, “to seek to promote accurate knowledge of the Coast Miwok Indians, the first people of Marin and southern Sonoma counties.” Valley residents were able to identify, and then help preserve at least two sacred shell mounds in the Oxford Valley with other possible burial sites nearby.
There are still other mitigating layers of history in Santa Venetia’s Oxford Valley that could impact development. These include a mid-19th century gold mine behind the 7-11 off East San Pedro that is the valley’s entrance, and, on the eastern side, the ruins of the Mabry McMahan House, the mansion/ headquarters of the 1914, never-completed development which was designed to add four miles of new canals connecting Santa Venetia to the Bay, enabling these “new Venetians” to “boat, float and fish,” in what brochures described as “The Still-Water Marvel of the 20th Century,” and subtitled “The Most Stupendous Project Ever Conceived in the West.” Lest anyone fail to recognize the genius behind this “Newport” of the Pacific, literature listed Mabry McMahon as Santa Venetia’s the “Founder and Sole Agent.” McMahon’s mansion burned down in the twenties, but its remains survive beneath the eastern rim of the Oxford Canyon, nearby the ancient Miwok village and shell mounds, all historic reminders of just how hard it is to meet the requirements of early- and current-day residents of Oxford Canyon.