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Sewer Wars of 2014 – The Day the Music Died – MAR Monday Memo 06/23/14

By June 23, 2014Uncategorized

Good morning MAR members! Blaine Morris

What a week…what a week… Near perfect weather here in Marin obscured the storm clouds that are developing around those of us that practice real estate here in Marin…

Long memo this week, my apologies in advance.

In the summer of 1972 as a six-year-old, I remember driving up to Red Rock swimming hole above Santa Barbara with my mom and one of her friends and a bunch of kids in a station wagon. A new song by Don McLean, “American Pie” was playing on the radio and all of us in the car were singing along with the chorus…a summertime memory for the rest of my life! It starts out with ” A long long time ago…” and later leads into the chorus with “The Day the Music Died…”

I heard that song on the radio a few weeks back. I had not heard it in a long time, and the long ago summer memories came flooding back. As it can be with songs like this, I just couldn’t shake it, and it was clanging around in my head for weeks…to the point where you want it to go away.

It all came together this week with a pair of developments in what we may look back upon as the “2014 Summer of Sewer Wars” here in the Marin real estate community. We just might look back fondly on the recent past as “a long long time ago” and realize that “The Day the Music Died” was on or about June 14, 2014, at least as it relates to what we may remember as “easy” Real Estate transactions in the Ross Valley. I’ll get to that in a minute.


First up, how about some good news? Last Wednesday night, the Larkspur City Council voted unanimously to scrap the controversial Station Area Plan, with its 900+ units of high-density housing at Larkspur Landing. While MAR never took an official position on this plan, we have been watching it very closely because so many members of the community were dead-set against it. Well beyond Larkspur itself, the Station Area Plan was being debated in Kentfield, San Anselmo and Fairfax. When the candidates for Marin County Supervisor came before MAR to seek our endorsement in the June election, MAR implored all of them to show leadership on the issue, as it was going to affect all of us, not just Larkspur residents.

In a big surprise, the elected leaders of Larkspur heard the collective voice of the community. Well done! Score another win for MAR’s stated policy of favoring local control over planning decisions vs. top-down dictating of local planning from agencies like ABAG. From Marinwood to Fairfax to Larkspur, Marin is rightfully taking back control of local planning decisions.


Now, on to the 2014 Summer of Sewer Wars. I’m sorry I have to keep talking about this decidedly unsexy subject, and the metaphors flow like spring water. In a nutshell, something really hit the fan this past week.

MAR has been closely watching the activities of both the Sewerage Agency of Southern Marin (SASM) and the Ross Valley Sanitary District (RVSD). Both are in a heap of trouble over sewage spills over the past number of years. SASM has been soliciting MAR’s input on a draft ordinance mandating point-of-sale sewer lateral inspections. At the same time, we’ve been aware that Ross Valley has been working to uphold the requirements of a cease-and-desist order (CDO) issued against them by the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board). We knew something was coming from them as well, but RVSD’s lack of contact with MAR made us believe that it was still crafting its plans.

On May 13th, RVSD’s General Manager Greg Norby responded to MAR’s CEO Andy Fegley’s letter voicing our concerns with the staff report issued in early April. Norby suggested that they get together to discuss RVSD’s plans for sewer lateral inspections. Andy immediately replied that was a great idea, and then set about to reach Mr. Norby to schedule the meeting. Andy emailed. And called. And emailed again. And called again. He was never able to reach Mr. Norby.


On Tuesday, I received a call from the Marin IJ wanting to know what MAR thought about the recent Marin Grand Jury report that was released last Monday, chronicling “The Scoop on Marin County Sewer Systems”…the state of the sewer systems in Marin. The Grand Jury strongly advocated for point-of-sale sewer line inspections. The reporter knew that SASM was considering point-of-sale, and wanted to know what MAR thought. I agreed that Marin has a huge problem, but told him that MAR is strongly opposed to point-of-sale ordinances because it will take 40+ years to solve an immediate problem via point of sale.

I told the reporter that MAR leadership was planning to attend last Thursday’s SASM board meeting to voice our concerns to the entire board. The board was planning to vote on the model ordinance that night.


What I did not know was at that exact time, the RVSD board was quietly planning to vote on its own point of sale ordinance last Wednesday night. Again, MAR had diligently been trying to get up to speed with RVSD’s plans for over a month, but no calls or emails were returned. Also note that there was an election in the middle of all of this, with existing board member Pam Meigs up for re-election. Ms. Meigs put off voting on the recently-passed massive rate increase until the week before the election…where she finally voted yes.

The net of all of this is that late on Friday, June 13, RVSD posted its agenda for last week’s meeting, which included the CDO-mandated point-of-sale ordinance (NOTE: this was the first time the public was given a glimpse at the ordinance). And with virtually no public input, and less than 72 hours of business time, they voted to adopt this very ordinance the following Wednesday. The Marin IJ didn’t know about it. Heck, the IJ still hasn’t mentioned it. And RVSD really doesn’t even know what they voted for.

We immediately contacted RSVD and successfully made the case for postponing the implementation of the point-of-sale requirement. A 60-day postponement will be voted on Wednesday night. We have assurances from staff and RVSD President Mary Sylla that it will pass.

As we learn more, we will get more info to you.


Which brings me to the culmination of all of our efforts to dissuade the SASM board to not vote to pass a
Model Ordinance mandating point-of-sale sewer lateral inspections in and around Mill Valley. At the SASM board meeting last Thursday night, MAR CEO Andy Fegley, MAR Board member Gene Laico, MAR past president (and current CAR Region 4 Chair) Katie Beacock and I all attended and testified against the proposed point-of-sale plan.

In a nutshell, the board heard us, and then went ahead and voted unanimously to pass their draft legislation. Now this plan needs to be voted on by the individual member sewer boards before it becomes law…so nothing changes for now. There will be more votes.

We all told them they needed a real plan to fix the problem now, not fix it over the next 40 years. One board member agreed with me that it’s just not politically viable to come up with a real plan. They also told us how much better their plan was going to be than the “terrible” plan that RVSD passed the night before. On that subject I can agree with them.

To SASM’s credit, they have taken MAR’s concerns into account: (1) upon receipt of the inspection, SASM will commit to a 3-day turnaround to determine whether a lateral repair or replacement is required; and (2) the sale of the house can continue, but if a repair is mandated it must be completed within 180 days of COE.

The RVSD plan is murky on that aspect, with extremely vague language about when a repair needs to be completed…it’s a subjective decision about whether it needs to be done by COE.


I would much rather have something better to tell you. The lack of transparency with the RVSD plan is amazing. They literally have no idea how they will implement it, but apparently they had to get a law on the books by June 30th to avoid sanctions and further legal action as a condition of the CDO. The language in the new ordinance is virtually a copy-and-paste of the language contained in the CDO with no thought of the practicality of the requirements. MAR will work with RVSD to mitigate the affects on homeowners and the real estate community.

If this ordinance were to go into effect next week as originally written, the most immediate outcome will be that the real estate business in the Ross Valley would slam to a halt until answers come from RVSD. And when I say Ross Valley, that’s Greenbrae, Kentfield, Ross, Larkspur, San Anselmo and Fairfax. That’s a pretty darn big chunk of the market in Marin.

So, as I said, we will all look back fondly on “A long, long time ago” when it was a far simpler time to close real estate transactions in Ross Valley. June 18th, 2014 may well be remembered as “The Day the Music Died”.

I really hate to be so corny…

That’s all for now.

I wish you a safe and prosperous week.

Blaine Morris
2014 MAR President