Dirt bikers of Novato: Eventually you’re going to need to find a new place to ride, because the development of Hanna Ranch is going to happen.
After more than three years of inching through the city approval process, Los Angeles-based developer Urban One received approval from the Novato City Council to construct a mixed-use complex on the undeveloped property just south of Vintage Oaks — a 19.7-acre property that has been popular with off-road bikers and hikers who have ignored the posted “private property” signs.
The council voted on seven resolutions pertaining to the project Tuesday at City Hall, and each vote went 3-1-1 — Mayor Denise Athas, Jeanne MacLeamy and Eric Lucan in favor, Pat Eklund against and Madeline Kellner abstaining because of her biologist husband’s involvement with the plan’s environmental impact report.
“Obviously, we’re very happy and excited,” Urban One’s Dennis Allen said. “We think it’s a great project and we were happy that the (city) staff and council supported it. We believe there are a lot of people in Novato who support it, too, people who don’t always get out to meetings like this. We want to build something the community can be proud of.”
The project calls for more than 11 of the 19 acres — on the northeast quadrant of the highways 101 and 37 interchange — to be left alone or just cleaned up. A 116-room, 70,600-square-foot hotel would be located in the property’s bowl area between three knolls and somewhat hidden from passing traffic on Highway 101. Two restaurants of 5,000 square feet each would be just north and east of the hotel. A 42,240-square-foot, two-story office/retail building would be placed on a strip of land the east side of Beverly Ehreth Ecological Preserve pond, right next to Costco. A single-story 13,571-square-foot retail building also is planned.
One piece of land — the northernmost chunk of the site, right at the end of Rowland Way — is still the subject of talks between Urban One and the city. Known as Parcel C, the three-quarter-acre property can only be developed if a purchase price is agreed upon. A second reading of the resolutions is scheduled for January, and that topic could be ironed out by then.
Aside from Parcel C, Allen said the next steps are to focus on design and bring drawings before the Novato Design Review Commission in six to 12 months.
The more forceful council support came from MacLeamy, who is determined to eliminate blight in Novato and make unimproved commercially zoned sites useful to the city and its residents. After hearing a lopsided majority of the public speakers criticize the project for its single-road access, its possible infringement on an ecological preserve, its hotel that would be bad for business at other local lodging establishments and its lack of affordable housing for the people who might work at the Hanna Ranch stores, MacLeamy made no doubt about her stance.
“What I’m hearing is a lot of doom and gloom, but I don’t agree,” she said. “ … I foresee good stewardship of the land in perpetuity. … This is very well planned and takes into account all the significant environmental attributes.”
She said the site is heavily damaged by erosion and dirt bike riders, the pond is full of debris and the panhandle area near the end of Rowland Way is “an eyesore.”
“It’s an ideal site for additional retail and it’s compatible to Vintage Oaks,” she said. “ … My main message for this land use is that its existing usefulness is nonexistent.”
Athas and Lucan supported much of what MacLeamy said, which also included a pointed remark aimed at lodging officials who criticized the proposed hotel.
“Let the marketplace do its work,” MacLeamy said. “We need more places in Novato for conferences and so forth. … Rather than being afraid of new competition, they should be combining efforts with the city, the chamber (of commerce), the (Downtown Novato Business Association) and bring in new businesses to Novato and help make land-use decisions.
Lucan, in his first full meeting as a newly elected council member, said the pros outweighed the cons on the Hanna Ranch development.
“A project like this allows the beauty of the site to be enjoyed and no longer destroyed,” he said. “If you walk the site, you would see the impacts of what’s gone on there. … I think we took our time looking at all the issues and I see more positives than negatives.”
Athas said she is ready for the property to become a vibrant commercial center and a destination stop for locals as well as travelers. She cited the expected 300 jobs created and the projected $650,000 gross revenue for the city’s general fund each year.
“You don’t just build to get money, but this happens to be very worthwhile project that will benefit Novato,” Athas said.
Eklund, who fired question after question to city staff, the assistant city attorney and the developer prior to the votes, was defiant to the end.
“I do not think it’s suitable for the site,” she said. “It’s too intense for the site, and it encroaches on very vulnerable wildlife. … Ideally this would remain as a nature preserve, and this project just too intense for the site.”
From the start, proponents of the development cited the additional choices for Novato residents to stay in town to spend their money, which leads to sales tax revenue. Also, the complex would lead to dozens of new jobs created and revamp a property that has been idle for decades.
Opponents came down hard on the developers in the designs so that people who work in the hotel, restaurants or stores would have the option of living walking distance to their jobs. The city of Novato has to meet state-mandated quotas for affordable housing options, and grassroots groups are pressuring all developers to include housing to help achieve the quotas rather than creating the need for more high-density housing complexes around the city.
In addition to housing, opponents said additional traffic in the Vintage Oaks area would pose problems, especially during the holiday season. Rowland Way is to be the sole entry and exit road for the new development except for emergency access from Highway 37.