Marin County NIMBYs – 1; Jedi Knights – 0.

Who said this and when?

“Marin County, a wealthy suburb north of San Francisco, is the best place to look for an understanding of what it means to stop suburban growth in the name of environmental protection. It means closing the gates to people who may want to move in and, where possible, even to people who may want to visit; turning to state and federal governments for help in paying the cost of exclusivity; and maintaining a tone of moral righteousness while providing a better living environment for the established residents.”

So wrote MIT Professor Bernard Frieden in his book THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION HUSTLE (MIT Press 1979), at p. 37. If you haven’t read it, you should, particularly if you have an interest in land-use laws and their abuse.

So why bring all that up now? Because today’s New York Times provides us with a perfect example of what Professor Frieden wrote about. See Norimitsu Onishi, Lucas and Rich Neighbors Agree to Disagree: Part II, N. Y. Times, May 22, 2012, at p. A13.

In a nutshell, George Lucas of “Star Wars” fame bought a 6100-acre ranch in Marin County, which he named Skywalker Ranch, and on which he built his Lucasfilm facility — or tried to. At first, all was sweetness and light, and Lucas was able to build two related facilities. But when it came to the third one, the poop hit the fan. His NIMBY neighbors rose up and opposed him. Not that the Lucasfilm facility was in any way environmentally destructive or inappropriate. As the Times article notes, the first two buildings were put up in such a way that they were invisible from the single two-lane road that snakes through the area.” But “after spending years and millions of dollars, Mr. Lucas abruptly cancelled plans recently for the third, and most likely last, major expansion, citing community opposition.” He would build instead in a place where, as the Times puts it, the local population “sees us as a creative asset, not an evil empire.” And that place may likely turn out to be some place other than California — Mr. Lucas has already built facilities in Singapore where, we are willing to bet, the locals were pleased to see him and his enterprise.

But as any fan of “Star Wars” knows, you can’t count on a Jedi Knight to give up, not even when he seems down. It appears that Mr. Lucas has struck back by announcing that he would sell his land to a developer in order to bring low income housing to Marin County. Oh dear.

The New York Times article ends on an upbeat note, asserting that the Marin County locals have resigned themselves to the coming low-cost housing (which up there means a qualifying income of $88,800 for a family of four). We shall see. Being a Californian, we don’t believe that any “low cost housing” will actually be built in that area for years, if at all.  Litigation of this type — which in this case is a certainty — is, to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and long. California courts may talk a good game, but in the event are unlikely, to put it with restraint, to sympathize with large scale development in privileged areas like Marin County. It seems like a sure bet that given the location of the situs, this litigation will take decades without necessarily producing any positive results for the folks on the lower runmgs of the socio-economic ladder. They may well be consigned to economic Bantustans located elsewhere. See Ybarra v. Town of Los Altos, 503, F.2d 250, 254 (9th Cir. 1974).

As Professor William A. Fischel, a noted Dartmouth land economist put it in 1995: “The California court changed the legal rules so that any number of parties could stop a given development up to the moment at which it was physically improved.” It took Bonnie Agins of Agins v. Tiburon fame some 30 years before she was permitted to build three houses on her 5-acre tract of land. And take a look at Clover Valley Foundation v. City of Rocklin, where it took 30 years from rezoning to getting a favorable court decision for an ordinary subdivision which, for all we know, has not yet been built.

So keep an eye on this brouhaha, and remember to bring a picnic lunch because its resolution may take a while.

Follow up. A reader takes issue with our perspective on this controversy. He evidently believes that the Force is with Lucas. He writes:

“If you think ‘the Jedi Knights have had their ass kicked by
California’s premier NIMBYs, and have formally surrendered’ you need to
put your glasses on right side up and quit looking through the
bifocals.  The only ‘asses’ involved here are the white suburban
homeowners, who are going to be beaten into submission just as fast as
Marin County can schedule another meeting and approve this project,
along with issuing a full-blown apology to Lucas for the
inconvenience.  This is what you get when you try to start a knife
fight with guys who have light sabers, just because you’ve always been
able to buy the most expensive knives.”

Like we said, this brouhaha bears watching, and we shall see if the County folks cave in. We are always ready to be pleasantly surprised, but life being what it is, when it comes to land-use in California we rarely are. In this case “the guys with light sabers” are thin on the ground and probably don’t have the votes. Still, who knows? As Yogi Berra put it, prediction is very dificult, especially about the future.

Second follow-up. Another reader informs us that Professor Bernard Frieden passed away in 2009 at the age of 79. Our loss. R.I.P. Bernie.

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