By TASHINA MANYAK
MARTINEZ, Calif. – Although the Pine Meadow Golf Course in Martinez has been officially closed since April 12, 2015, the battle over what to do with the land has taken on a life of its own.
It seemed like a done deal when property owner Christine Coward Dean negotiated to sell the 26 acres to developer DeNova Homes for approximately $4 million. The CEO of DeNova Homes, Dave Sanson, and the City of Martinez held about 30 community meetings where a plan was carefully crafted to build a 99-home development, which was to include five acres of walking trails and open space. The only necessary step for the plan to move forward was for the City of Martinez to change the land use designation from “recreational/open space” to “residential.” The City Council voted on and approved this step in January 2015. So, what’s the issue?
It turns out many Martinez residents are more passionate about preserving open space in the city than those organizing the development project had bargained for.“We need our city to protect our open space and park land. That’s the real issue,” said Tim Platt, a leading activist and founding member of a citizen’s group, “Friends of Pine Meadow,” which has been aggressively lobbying to block any plan that would allow the area to be developed as anything other than open space.
The environmentally concerned group’s passion was on full display at the last City Council meeting, where Platt and many of his fellow activists threw their full weight behind upholding a referendum to block the project. The referendum was submitted in February 2015, when the “Friends” successfully gathered 4,000-plus signatures to put the issue on the ballot. It was certified a month later and is currently scheduled for November of this year.
But the developer, Denova, is advocating for rescinding the referendum, saying the vote would be a “moot point” since the originally proposed housing project has been scrapped. A special meeting has been called to review whether it will be upheld or rescinded, which will take place March 9. All City Council members will be present and the public given space to express its opinions.
During the deliberations, one question has been the source of considerable misunderstanding: what exactly will people be voting on if the referendum proceeds?
Many “Friends” members, including Platt, have been working from the assumption that the referendum would keep the zoning of the property as permanent open space.
But a City official privy to the issue who asked to remain anonymous confirmed that what DeNova General Counsel Dana Tsubota has publicly repeated is true: the referendum will only allow residents to vote on this particular 99-unit project, not on the permanent zoning of the area.
“The wording on the referendum allows voters to ‘protest the adoption of Resolution No. 009-15.’ The resolution number refers to the approved 99-unit specifically, not to the permanent zoning,” explained the official.
For this reason, Tsubota said the “Friends” group has misled its supporters.
“Facebook posts and flyers circulated by the ‘Friends of Pine Meadow’ misrepresent what is currently set to go to the voters,” Tsubota stated, adding that DeNova “offered to have the City rescind its approval of the General Plan Amendment, thereby eliminating the need for a vote, giving the ‘Friends’ exactly what they would get if they won the election, and saving the taxpayers [money].”
The estimated cost of putting this issue on the General Election ballot is $100,000 taxpayer dollars.
Repealing this particular approved plan for residential housing is not the ultimate mission of the “Friends,” however. They aim to maintain the land as open space permanently. The current referendum will not accomplish this, but the effort has helped to rally residents against the prospect of residential development which they find undesirable.
At the last council meeting, many members and sympathizers of the group were visibly suspicious of the intentions of DeNova in seeking to rescind the referendum. Platt accused DeNova of attempting “backdoor deals” with the City without the knowledge of the Martinez citizenry, citing email correspondence that references plans for an even larger housing development on the property.
Judging by the email’s contents, it indeed appears other projects are in the works.
Written on Oct. 20, 2015, by DeNova CEO Dave Sanson to then City Manager Rob Braulik and cc’d to the mayor and City Council members, the email discusses a variety of plans. It states that “the designation allows a near-infinite mix of three types of land uses: open space, residential and commercial/retail/restaurant.” It continues: “No matter what project is proposed, that project must include a minimum of 2 acres of open space.”
This is what worries the open space activists – that DeNova’s request to rescind the referendum is strategic, or as some would have it, a “back door” move to get the efforts of the “Friends” out of their hair.
Whatever becomes of the referendum after March 9, those favoring open space may face an uphill battle if they aren’t able to secure funding for their proposal, according to the City source. She said even if a petition for permanent open space were circulated, it wouldn’t carry any weight unless the “Friends” had a credible budget for creating and maintaining a park space.
“If they wanted to do a petition to permanently amend the land to open space, they could, but they’d have to have the money to fund the project. They (‘Friends’) say we (the City) have the money in our Parks and Recreation budget, but the money is already committed to the maintenance of our existing parks. A brand new park is not cheap,” she said.
Platt reasoned that “grants, public donations, and reserve funds” could be used to purchase the property. But $4 million is a hefty price tag and would leave the City dangerously low if reserves were tapped, said the official.
“We only have about $8 million in reserve. If an earthquake happens, our reserves are gone,” she said.
This is not the first time City representatives have expressed this concern. When Dean decided to sell her family owned and operated golf course, the first prospect she approached was the City of Martinez. From that first offer until today, Mayor Rob Schroder has repeatedly stated the City will not purchase the property because Martinez does not need another open space, nor would they prioritize the money to do so, even if it were available.