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January 04, 2017

Exactly who or what is responsible for pathogens entering creeks in the San Geronimo Valley may soon be determined.

The San Geronimo Valley Planning Group is paying for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to do detailed analyses of water samples in the area using the lab’s “PhyloChip” technology, a DNA-based method to detect and distinguish sources of microbial contamination in water.


“It’s going to be enormously valuable,” said Brian Staley, the planning group’s chairman. “There has been a decades-long discussion at state Regional Water Quality Control Board and county levels about what contaminants are in our watersheds, who is contributing to the problem more, and what the best fixes would be.”




The San Geronimo Valley contains two good-sized equestrian facilities, an 18-hole golf course, a sizable beef ranch and a world-famous Buddhist retreat, along with 3,600 residents, a majority of whom own their own homes.

The communities of Woodacre and San Geronimo are in the Lagunitas Creek watershed, which drains to Tomales Bay. The San Geronimo Creek watershed provides some of the finest remaining habitat for coho salmon in California. 

But due to the presence of bacterial pathogens, both the watershed and Tomales Bay have been designated impaired water bodies as defined by the federal Clean Water Act. 




Faulty on-site wastewater systems, especially for properties in close proximity to streams, have been identified as among the sources contributing to the impaired water quality. A study done after voluntary inspections in the area showed marginal to unacceptable operating conditions in one-half to two-thirds of the septic systems there.

An environmental impact report is underway — public scoping sessions could begin next month — to explore the possibility of creating a community sewerage facility for about 300 homes in the flat area of Woodacre and San Geronimo. As part of that process, the county of Marin is performing new water testing.




But Staley said the planning group was not satisfied with the more conventional type of testing the county had planned. He said the planning group had recently become familiar with the new PhyloChip technology and decided to fund a separate set of tests conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.


“Current methods look at two or three microbes at the most to indicate there is potential contamination from a fecal source,” said Gary Andersen, a microbial ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “The PhyloChip that we developed in our laboratory looks at tens of thousands of microbes simultaneously.”


A single microbe is not a definitive indicator of an animal or other source; a single cow might have 1,000 different organisms. So scientists at the Berkeley lab created a reference library of the microbial communities using excrement from a variety of sources — cows, horses, raccoons, humans, different types of birds, pigs, sea lions and other animals, as well as sewage and septage. 


The PhyloChip uses an algorithm to analyze samples and determine their source by comparing the microbes in the samples to those in the reference library. The technology was originally developed to identify the sources of pathogens in the air not in water. The research was funded by the Department of Homeland Security during the anthrax scare that followed the 9/11 attacks.




Lorene Jackson, a project manager in Marin’s Environmental Health Services division, said the “microbial source tracking” approach the county is using — while not as powerful as the PhyloChip — will identify microbes from humans, cattle, horses and dogs. Staley, however, said the PhyloChip will not only identify the source of the pathogens in the water; but, if there is more than one pathogen present, it will determine their relative strengths.

Andersen said in a blinded study the PhyloChip accurately differentiated between the major and minor sources in 64 samples. He added, “But we are not yet able to allocate to percentages.”

Opposition flares over proposed valley dispensary

November 26, 2016

Opposition to a proposed medical marijuana dispensary is ramping up in the San Geronimo Valley, with dozens of residents lobbying the local planning group and the school board to write critical letters to the county. As of this week, the Community Development Agency had received about 200 letters opposing the single active proposal for the valley, in Forest Knolls.

School trustees approved a letter of protest, though one trustee, Denise Santa Cruz Bohman, abstained, saying she needed to fight the proposal not as a trustee but as the manager of the affordable trailer park behind the proposed site at 6700 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. 

And though the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group has not yet taken a formal position, a meeting on Nov. 14 to discuss the proposal drew about 30 or 40 people—many parents of young children—who detailed their objections, occasionally through tears. No one spoke in support of it. 


The prospect of the dispensary has sparked numerous fears, particularly over children passing by, customers overwhelming the valley’s rural character, the area’s minimal law enforcement presence and the proximity to homes. 


Following a 2015 county ordinance allowing storefront medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated Marin, the county received 12 applications. The ordinance, which requires that dispensaries be 800 feet from schools and youth-oriented facilities, allows for two licenses in West Marin and two in eastern Marin.


The single application active in the valley, submitted by a group called Forest Knolls Wellness, listed as its location the building that now houses a farm stand, a vintage shop and an espresso bar. That building is for sale, and former dispensary operator and reality television star Matthew Shotwell is interested in purchasing it.


But residents are worried about a dispensary’s potential effects on children, who could easily pass by every day, and the possibility of increased crime in an area patrolled only a few times a day by deputies. We are a residential area…I truly believe [a dispensary] will destroy the character of the valley,” one person said at the planning group meeting. Another said, “I have two young children… It will no longer be a safe haven to explore.” 


One mother, Amena Hajjar, said 74 percent of middle schoolers in the Lagunitas School District live in Forest Knolls or Lagunitas, meaning they must pass by the property to get to school. “That’s a huge number of children being exposed,” she said.


In response to concerns about passing children, the lawyer for Forest Knolls Wellness, Natalia Thurston, wrote a letter to the county in late October floating the idea of locating the dispensary at the back of the building. Ms. Thurston said this week that they are trying to figure out if such a change would comply with the ordinance’s requirements regarding visibility.


Attendees at the planning group meeting also emphasized that a dispensary could bring droves of patrons from over the hill. Many pled with the group to formally oppose the project, believing a letter from them would carry extra weight with the county administrator, who is charged with making the final call. (In a frustrating twist for opponents, only the dispensary applicant can appeal the administrator’s decision.)


Some on the board, though not advocating for the project, responded to fears of crime by saying the ordinance imposed a number of rules and procedures on operations.

But that did not seem to assuage residents. Mark Daley, of Woodacre, noted that strip clubs and liquor stores can abide by the law. “But the fact that businesses can successfully follow the rules doesn’t mean they belong here,” he said. 


One trustee said at the school board meeting that he once worked beside a dispensary. It always smelled like weed, he said, despite the operator constantly telling people not to smoke on the premises.


Ms. Thurston reiterated that smoking is not allowed at the site and said product would come to the dispensary prepackaged, per new state laws.

And it’s safe to say that the absence of a dispensary does not eliminate youth exposure to marijuana. Liza Crosse, a valley resident and aide to supervisor Steve Kinsey, noted at the planning group meeting that “our children are surrounded by it.” 

According to statistics from the 2013-14 school year, over 40 percent of freshman at Tamalpais Union High School District, where Lagunitas students go to Drake High—start using drugs or alcohol at or before age 14. 


Mr. Staley said the group would conduct a membership poll. If the group decides there are “clear, germane concerns,” it would send a letter. In the meantime, he encouraged people sending letters to couch their objections and arguments not just in emotions but in concrete policies or guidelines, such as the San Geronimo Valley Community Plan. And if people want a voice in the planning group, he said, they can join as a member.


Shreya Laroche, a San Geronimo resident and mother of two, lives just 100 feet or so from the property. “Little kids live close by… if it’s not appropriate to be in proximity to school, then why is it okay to be close to where kids live?” she said after the meeting, as she filled out a membership form. 

Another concern arose at both meetings over the impact of the passage of Proposition 64, which legalizes recreational marijuana. The state does not have to start issuing permits for businesses until 2018, and it’s unclear what may happen in the interim. 


According to the Los Angeles Times, a state lawmaker said the legislature “will likely consider allowing existing medical dispensaries to be given temporary interim power to sell marijuana for recreational use until the new licensing system is in place.”


Tom Lai, assistant director of the Community Development Agency, said that if such a scenario played out, the county would comply with state law. But, he added, both Prop 64 and last year’s medical marijuana law allow local jurisdictions to either allow or ban marijuana businesses.

And it appears that a ban on recreational marijuana storefronts in Marin may be in the works. The county’s medical marijuana website says, “The Board of Supervisors may consider additional prohibitions on recreational cannabis businesses and cultivation in January 2017.”

Three apply for pot dispensaries in West Marin

September 08, 2016

Three groups have applied for licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries they hope to operate in West Marin, two in the San Geronimo Valley and one in Marshall. The Community Development Agency accepted applications through Aug. 31, but not all of the applicants appear to have received permission from the owners of the buildings whose addresses they listed for their future operations. 

Permission to use an address was a required part of the application, said Tom Lai, the agency’s assistant director. “[O]ver the next few weeks, we intend to verify that the applications meet the submittal requirements in order to be able to move them forward for additional review,” he said. 

The applications are the latest step in the county’s effort to improve access to medical marijuana. Storefront dispensaries have never before been permitted in unincorporated Marin, and the last storefront in the county closed two years ago in Corte Madera. 


Last December, the county approved an ordinance to allow up to four storefronts in Marin, two in West Marin and two in the eastern part of the county, though the agency can approve fewer depending on the caliber of the applications. Operations must be at least 800 feet from schools, youth-oriented facilities, smoke shops and other dispensaries.


The agency received more applications than it expected: a total of 12, including five for Mill Valley, one for San Rafael, three for Novato and three for West Marin. The county charged applicants $6,000, though that amount can be refunded if a group rescinds the application before the county processes it.


The Community Development Agency has posted the names, phone numbers and addresses named in applications on its website and will soon post the applications, with sensitive information redacted, Mr. Lai said.


Now, the applications are being reviewed for completeness. The county will give each “one shot” to provide missing information, Mr. Lai said. After that, if an application lacks any necessary documents, it will be eliminated from consideration.


Originally the agency planned to convene a public workshop in November on the applications, where an advisory committee would make recommendations to the county administrator, who will make the final call on which groups receive a license. But because of the larger number of applicants, Mr. Lai said the public event will happen in early 2017. 


The West Marin applicants are Forest Knolls Wellness, Even Tide Medical Cannabis Dispensary and Craftcanna Health Center. Natalia Thurston, the contact for Forest Knolls Wellness, is an attorney specializing in marijuana issues who represents two San Rafael residents who would run the dispenary. If they nabbed a license, they would operate at 6700 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, where the farm stand is located. (The building’s owner did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment. However, the owner, Becky Lepori, contact the Light following the publication of this article and said she did not receive a voicemail. She said she did grant permission to the applicants for a dispensary.)


Ms. Thurston said her clients would like to organize community events at the space like tai chi or yoga, and would sell a long list of products. “The full menu of dispensary offerings, all lab-tested,” she said.


Deborah Reynolds, the contact for Even Tide, which listed 7282 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, at Lagunitas Station, as its address, did not return a call by press time. 

There are spaces available for lease in the building, but Bill Hart, the realtor who manages leases for the property, said neither he nor the building’s owner—Lagunitas LLC, the principal of which is William White—had met Ms. Reynolds or given her or anyone else permission to lease space for a dispensary. 

“These people didn’t have permission to make this application. The owner is not going to give anyone permission at this time,” Mr. Hart said, adding that the owner was “not real happy” about being associated with a dispensary.


Valley business owners are largely comfortable with the idea of a local storefront dispensary, said Brian Staley, chair of the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group. “I had done a review a few months ago of the business owners in the Valley and they were unanimously in favor of the idea, as long as they met the state codes and health and safety requirements,” he wrote in an email.


Jyoti Sroa, the listed contact for Craftcanna, is part of the family that owns Lotus Cuisine of India in San Rafael. He said he was “still working” on getting the property owners’ permission for the Marshall address he listed: 20105 Highway 1, or the Marshall Tavern.

But one of the Marshall Tavern’s co-owner, Avi Atid, said the applicants had no permission from the building’s owners to run a dispensary. “We didn’t authorize anything and we have no contract with these people,” he said.


A clarification was added to this article on Sept. 14.

Woodacre searching for best sewage solution

January 03, 2014

Flushes of the toilet in most West Marin homes usually send down mixtures of urine, excrement and water into a personal septic system. But in a few years time, up to 300 homes in the flats of Woodacre and San Geronimo might hook into a community system to handle the human effluent instead.

Such a system might pipe the wastewater to a leachfield northeast of the flats, but an alternative, which would shuttle the wastewater to a proposed pair of ponds on the San Geronimo Golf Course—there to be disinfected and used for irrigation—has lately been the favored subject of discussion. 

The county is currently seeking a grant to review those options through an environmental assessment, and while some residents fear a community system will encourage development or be prohibitively expensive for existing homeowners, others say those beliefs result from misunderstandings. 

Leaky septic systems, many built before modern codes were in place, pose a problem for water quality in Tomales Bay, which is fed by Lagunitas Creek. According to Liza Crosse, a member of the Tomales Bay Watershed 

Council and an aide to Supervisor Steve Kinsey, the creek is the second largest contributor to pathogens in the bay. 

The flats of Woodacre are a particular problem because of the high water table, said Christin Anderson with the Woodacre/San Geronimo Wastewater Project Group, which is raising money from homeowners to help fund an environmental impact report. “We primarily became involved because during wintertime when the water table was high and it would rain, you would walk through Woodacre and it would smell like sewage,” she said. 

The idea for a community wastewater system had its genesis in a grant received by the watershed council, which funded community meetings in the valley to discuss problematic septic tanks. A feasibility study was completed in 2011, concluding that many septic systems in the flats of Woodacre were not up to par. A sample survey found 73 percent needed high-level repairs to meet modern standards and reduce the potential for waste to make its way into the watershed. The average cost for a high-level upgrade, it said, is $43,500.

That feasibility study assessed three different solutions, including a system that would pipe wastewater to a treatment site near the golf course—where millions of gallons would be disinfected, stored in ponds and used as spray irrigation during the dry months. A hundred and fifty homes could provide 15 percent of the golf course’s irrigation needs.

Though the golf pond system provides a way to recycle the water, it is also the most complex option. Wastewater must be filtered and disinfected to meet stringent state standards, waste must be collected and periodically disposed of, and failsafe systems must be in place so that human wastewater does not make its way into the watershed.

Based on estimates of hooking up 150 homes, capital costs of over $6.7 million, as well as annual maintenance costs, made it the second most expensive option studied. Including more homes would lower the cost per person, but building a proposed second pond to accommodate up to 300 people would add significantly to the bottom line; there is not yet an estimate of just how much. 

In response to a recent community survey sent out by the county, opponents raised concerns about the high cost of a complex community system and said modern improvements instead should be made to existing septic systems. One response noted that a community system simply could not force leaky systems to connect: “What is the point of this exercise in futility if the owners with failing systems don’t want to hook up?” it asked.

Brian Staley, a Woodacre resident and critic of a community system, worries about whether such a complex system for a small, capped number of homes would set a precedent for more multi-million dollar projects around the state. He argues that, unlike towns such as Marshall that have set up a community system, Woodacre is not an in immediate emergency. He believes that individual fixes are the better option, perhaps undertaken when homes go through a change in ownership.

The feasibility study evaluated the option of creating a management district that would monitor individual septic systems to ensure failing ones were fixed and that wastewater was contained. That approach could ameliorate many environmental and water quality problems, but it was also ruled the most expensive option, at over $8.3 million, because of the high cost of bringing substandard septic tanks up to code. And homeowners might object because modern mound systems take up space above ground on their small lots.

Robert Turner, a project manager at Marin Environmental Health Services, also questioned whether people would ever support a system that would require visits on private property to inspect septic tanks.

Overall, the feasibility study concluded that a community leachfield would be the best option in terms of cost—but when environmental, water quality and reliability were factored in, the golf ponds were the favored alternative. 

The Woodacre homeowner group aspires to fund at least 50 percent of capital costs through grants, Ms. Crosse said, but added that goal is just that: an aspiration. 

Ms. Anderson said those who hooked up would likely have to pay about $20,000, which could be delivered over 20 years. But there is no way to know for sure how much it might cost until a final total cost is determined, homeowners commit and grant money is procured.

As for those who may have a difficult time affording to buy in, Ms. Crosse said some lower-income residents might quality for a program to defer payments, or pay back the loan over a longer period of time. But everyone must also pay an annual fee, which would likely be around $1,100 or $1,200. “There’s no way to defer that,” she said.

Apart from economic fears are claims that the elimination of hundreds of local septic systems could spur development. “We are being lied to by people who want larger homes or are too lazy to do the homework to figure out a reasonable fix for their antique septic systems,” said Mr. Staley, in a Facebook in a post positing his concerns. 

But supporters of the golf pond system say the opposite: that a community system could limit development. 

Homes that utilize septic tanks are subject to regulations that—depending on a number of factors including the parcel size, the size of the septic tank and leachfield, and the number of bedrooms—can limit the square footage of a home. Those limitations disappear if a home hooks into a sewer system.

But there are ways to ensure that development does not spiral out of control. On the recent community survey, the most popular option was a deed restriction on houses that sign up, with limits to either 500 square feet of additional development or however many square feet would bring the home to the average size in the area— 1,371 square feet. 

Mr. Staley countered that it is the county and legislators’ jobs, not homeowners, to regulate development. He worries that homebuyers who don’t read the fine print may find themselves surprised with deed restrictions later on.

The environmental impact report itself will cost about $225,000. A mixture of money from the county, Marin Municipal Water District and locals will fund most of it, but the county is also seeking a $75,000 grant from the State Water Resources Control Board’s recycling water program. 

The scope of the report was a bone of contention in some community survey responses. One respondent called the golf pond option a “railroad job.” But the county says it would evaluate at least two options: the golf ponds and a community leachfield. Once funding is secured, the community can formally comment on its scope.

And even if the report is funded, a community system cannot be built until the assessment is completed, homeowners vote to go forward and the Board of Supervisors approves the project itself.

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