By Eva Buxton, Conservation & Invasive Species Chair
Martha Property aerial

The Martha property as seen from San Francisco Bay – Photo by Jocelyn Knight

The fate of the Martha property located at the tip of the Tiburon peninsula may be nearly resolved with Measure M.  This exceptional piece of land supports live oak woodland and savanna, native grassland, as well as vegetation associated with serpentine substrates. It has unobstructed views of the San Rafael-Richmond Bridge, the Berkeley Hills, Angel Island, the San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, and Mt. Tamalpais.

The Trust for Public Lands, a San Francisco-based non-profit, has stepped up to buy the 110 acres in unincorporated Marin from the owners of the Martha Company for $42.1 million, with the intent to sell it to Marin County for $26.1 million.  The Martha Company is a consortium of heirs of John L. Reed (not the John Reed who received a Mexican land grant) who purchased the property in the early 1900s. Since the 1970s the owners have been trying to build 43 luxury homes on the property.  There has been fierce opposition and criticism from residents and other land-conscious individuals, who have advocated for adding the land to the adjacent Old St. Hilary’s Open Space Preserve (OSH) owned and managed by Marin County Parks (MCP).

The Martha property has been written about, debated, reviewed in California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) documents, and litigated since 1976, when a stipulated judgement allowed the Martha Company the right to construct 43 homes on the property.  After decades of activity and inactivity, the Company went back to court in 2007 to force Marin County to take action and abide by the 1976 ruling.

In May this year (2022), a California appeals court affirmed an earlier verdict against the Town of Tiburon and Tiburon Open Space (TOS), a local grassroots group, in their challenge of Marin County’s certification of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the 43-home subdivision (Easton Point).  TOS had filed its lawsuit against Marin County in 2017 after the Board of Supervisors (BOS) approved a revised master plan for the Easton Point subdivision.  The concerns of TOS were that the proposed development would have negative impacts on the Town, including fire danger and severe traffic problems.  The Town of Tiburon joined the lawsuit in 2019, suggesting that the project would have public health and safety impacts, ranging from traffic impacts to fire and landslide dangers.  The lawsuit sought to invalidate the EIR, which the BOS in its certification found had addressed environmental issues adequately with necessary mitigation measures.  (In CNPS comments on an EIR in 2011, I advocated for removing three building parcels on a serpentine knoll with rare and endangered plants adjacent to OSH, which the County accepted, thus eliminating those building sites.)  After further hearings, oral arguments, and written briefs, a Marin County Superior Court Judge ruled that the project complied with CEQA.  TOS and the Town of Tiburon were disappointed with the verdict and appealed the ruling, but they lost again in the Appellate court and did not appeal to the California Supreme Court.  In the meantime, another local non-profit organization, Tiburon Belvedere Residents United to Support the Trails (TRUST), had filed a lawsuit against the Martha Company asserting that the public had established a right to use the trails on the property by using them for many decades before the 1950s.  TRUST lost its case in both the Superior and Appellate courts of Marin.  It appealed to the California Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

It is noteworthy that an appellate panel declared that CEQA “was meant to serve noble purposes” but, as in this case, had been manipulated to be a means of “obstruction to projects that will increase housing density.” (Although increased housing density does not fit the conditions on the Martha property, where 43 multi-million-dollar homes were to be built on 110 acres, the underlying premise is notable.)  It was further said that when “private opposition is joined with ‘official hostility’,” CEQA can be a “formidable tool of obstruction.”  In 2018, after decades of trying to develop the luxury-home subdivision, the Martha Company put the property on the market for $110 million (a million dollars per acre), subsequently lowering it to $95 million, then to $63 million, and finally to $42.1 million.

However, the battle over preserving the Martha property as open space is not over yet.  At a meeting on July 26, 2022, the BOS voted 4-0 (Southern Marin Supervisor absent but aide vouching for her support) to form a Tiburon Peninsula Open Space communities-facilities district, composed of Belvedere and part of Tiburon, and to pose a bond measure to voters in that district on the November 8, 2022 ballot.  Measure M would seek to issue $23 million in bonds to be repaid over 30 years resulting in a parcel tax of $139 per year.  It needs approval of two-thirds of the district’s voters.

To raise its share of $26.1 million, Marin County is relying on $18 million from the parcel tax, as well as $6 million of Measure A funds and $2.1 million in existing funds from two previous bonds dating from the 1990s for the purchase of the land that is now OSH.  Those bonds at $98 per parcel each will sunset in 2023 and 2027.  The Trust for Public Lands plans to seek private donations, as well as State and Federal grants to raise its $16 million portion of the $42.1 million purchase price.  The Trust for Public Lands and Marin County have until August 2024 to raise the funds and finalize the purchase-sale deal.

Issues Raised at Board of Supervisors’ July Meeting

The issue of limited parking near the Martha property was raised at the July BOS meeting. As a resident of Tiburon, I have advocated for many years for more parking near our preserves. There are no plans to include parking facilities for the public if the Martha property is successfully acquired as open space.  In addition, MCP has not designated trails entering OSH along its south-eastern border, trails that could be used to access the Martha property.  Similarly, current entrances to OSH have no parking or limited parking in residential neighborhoods.  Parking along borders of the property not abutting OSH has not been assessed.

In addition to limited parking, a real estate agent from out of town lamented the possible loss of millions in tax income by not allowing building on the site.  Someone else questioned the need to acquire more open space land, since Marin is over 50% open space already, and specifically on the Tiburon peninsula that already has several large County and Town preserves.  Should public funds instead be used for the purchase of property other than on the Tiburon peninsula?  A Tiburon resident suggested that it was desirable to see undeveloped hillsides when viewed from a boat on the Bay!

Hopefully, this beautiful piece of land, if acquired, will be easily accessible to everyone, not only to Belvedere and Tiburon residents.  If so, the collective dream of all who have worked so hard for several decades will come true: “Martha will be open to all and forever!”

Abbreviations:

BOS – Marin County Board of Supervisors

CEQA – California Environmental Quality Act

EIR – Environmental Impact Report

MCP – Marin County Parks

OSH – Old St. Hilary’s Open Space Preserve

TOS – Tiburon Open Space Committee

TRUST – Tiburon Belvedere Residents United to Support the Trails