Marin County’s newest supervisor has deep roots here and big plans for public open spaces.
You may not see Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni as a politician when you meet him at his Civic Center office, let alone one from rural and rugged West Marin.
Yet in November of 2016, with few endorsements from politicians or publications, Rodoni won 53 percent of the vote and was elected supervisor from Marin County’s sprawling 4th District, which includes Corte Madera; portions of San Rafael, Novato, Mill Valley and Larkspur; and nearly all of West Marin. While each Marin County supervisor has approximately 53,000 residents in his or her respective district, Rodoni’s district encompasses by far the largest land mass and the greatest number of voters from unincorporated areas.
Rodoni, 65, was a schoolteacher and then a general contractor before being first in his family to seek elective office. But if heritage figures into political pedigree, he was made for the job. In 1863, his great grandfather left the Italian Alps to become a dairy farmer in tiny Olema, the West Marin hamlet where Rodoni and his wife raised their two daughters and have lived for the past quarter of a century. From the 1930s into the 1940s, Rodoni’s paternal grandparents owned the legendary Old Western Saloon in Point Reyes Station, and his great uncle Sam Mazza and uncle Louis Bloom were Marin County fire chiefs.
Rodoni’s initial electoral seat was on the North Marin Water Board in 1995; he was reelected five times. Recently he’s been involved with the Point Reyes Village Association, Tomales Bay Association and Coastal Health Alliance. Since elected supervisor in January 2017, he’s been serving on the board of Transportation Authority of Marin, the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT).
You are a relative newcomer, so let’s start off with your political philosophy. I like to think I’m very progressive. I’m also a problem solver who thinks outside the box. I have strong environmental credentials, which counts for a lot in Marin. But most of all, I’m a doer. I think I’m better at doing things than I am at talking about what I’m doing. As for my heroes, they’re folks who work for the nonprofits; the ones who do what they do not for money, but to help other people. These are the people who bring food to the food banks, who see that seniors are safe and healthy in their homes, and people who help staff community clinics that serve those who don’t have health insurance. As for my political hero, it would probably be John F. Kennedy. However, I shy away from selecting heroes because if you put someone up on a pedestal, too often you get disappointed when they are knocked off.
Moving to local politics, why did county supervisors purchase the San Geronimo Valley Golf Course? Early last year, I became aware that the property was on the market and thought it had great value as a public space and for park uses. I also knew that two creeks, San Geronimo and Larsen, that cross the golf course were tremendously valuable to the restoration of coho salmon and steelhead trout in the area. It was also a great opportunity for the West Marin community to acquire a greenbelt to connect all its little towns; it seemed like a natural fit. So the county parks department reached out to the Trust for Public Lands, or TPL, because it was more nimble in negotiating these types of transactions and had the financial resources to purchase the property sooner. Then we learned the course had been sold to an operator who’d likely develop the golfing facilities by another 40,000 square feet. However, that transaction fell through and the property owner went back to TPL and they subsequently came together when TPL entered into contract to purchase the property for $8.85 million. In October of last year, the board of supervisors voted to purchase the golf course from TPL, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, in the near future.
Please define “near future.” By “near future” I mean the county would have 10 to 12 months to put together the funding to buy the property from TPL. Meanwhile, the county will look for someone to operate the golf course for two years while a robust planning process takes place to see what type of park and public uses the property can be put to and what development, if any, will happen on the clubhouse’s parcel. In my mind, that 23-acre clubhouse parcel is the only parcel where development can take place, as the rest of the property is severely limited by zoning and setback restrictions. Possibilities for the clubhouse parcel include a county fire headquarters, affordable housing and a community garden facility — among many others.
How will the county come up with funding to buy the golf course from TPL? The county will buy this property with only $1.4 million of general budget money. So out of the county’s general fund, that’s all we’ll spend to acquire this almost $9 million property. The other sources of funds include $2.5 million from Measure A, the open space acquisition sales tax fund, and almost $5 million from state bond measures, as well as from California Fish and Wildlife and other such groups. We believe there is enough interest in this property to close the deal. Both the county administrator’s office and the county parks department wouldn’t have recommended entering into this agreement unless they thought there would be funding out there. It has never been the county’s intent to fund this acquisition entirely from county taxpayer funds.
The other big issue in West Marin is the environmentalists’ lawsuit involving dairy ranchers on Point Reyes National Seashore. What’s the status of that? Well, the lawsuit has been settled. Part of the agreement with the National Park Service and the ranchers was that the general plan needed to be amended and updated to reflect stipulations from the court. Those stipulations lie anywhere between a no ranching alternative to ranching being allowed to continue as it is. That planning process kicked off in fall of 2017 and there have been two public meetings so far, which provided valuable input for moving the process forward. But the process involves the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, so it could take considerable time. Currently ranchers have four- and fiveyear leases, which gives everyone time to work things out. I didn’t play a role in the settlement; it was a collaborative effort where all the lawyers sat in a room and worked things out. But I’m looking forward to the day when most of the ranchers in Point Reyes National Seashore have 20-year leases, which is key to their survival. That way they can get the loans they need to improve their barns, fencing and equipment and make other capital improvements.
That said, is agriculture looking up throughout West Marin? The future of agriculture in West Marin looks really good. First, MALT has been able to purchase development rights [easements], which capitalizes ranchers and farmers and allows them to continue intergenerational farming. Second, organic milk prices have been very favorable for the dairy people so they’ve been able to be more profitable and are making needed improvements to the ranches because of that. The third reason is that West Marin is becoming a niche for agricultural products, from grass-fed beef to craft cheeses. And those niches, in terms of improving market potential, are going to be of great benefit for all West Marin’s agriculture.
What about tourism in West Marin? The impact of tourism is probably one of the biggest issues West Marin is going to face over the next few years, as the popularity of West Marin will continue to increase. West Marin is a day trip for millions of Bay Area residents and we aren’t immune to high gas prices or recessions. We are protected by the State Coastal Act, the National Park Service and state parks, so we have an absolutely gorgeous area to live in and we realize we have to share it; we’re obligated to share it. What we must figure out is how we can balance the local needs and the visitors’ needs — which is presenting a very significant challenge. Currently, the side effects from having too many tourists are crippling our community: we have issues with trash, overuse of our septic systems and a lack of affordable living spaces. I would hope that at some point the impacts of tourists would be self-regulating — West Marin won’t be a desirable day trip if there are too many people in the location you want to visit or the roadways are too crowded for travel. However, I haven’t seen too much evidence of that [self-regulation] working. I have ideas on how to mitigate the impacts of tourism and I invite the community to reach out with their suggestions.