Not a Lot of Lots

Marin County has an abundance of many things: hiking trails, water views and great farm-to- table food. But try buying a vacant lot here and you’ll discover what we lack most. Simply put: We have no lots.

We have no lots. There are few places with as little buildable “raw land” as Marin. This past December, for example, there were 641 homes for sale, but only 128 lots. And even that number is misleading because it assumes that all of the lots are viable, which they are not. “These lots tend to be very challenged,” says Ted Strodder, a realtor with Decker Bullock Sotheby’s. “Either they’re too steep or they lack the necessary utilities or there’s no road access, or all of the above.”

The offerings range from a $9,888,000 hillside lot in Belvedere (a town notoriously tough to build in) to a 2,000-square-foot lot in Bolinas, selling for $9,995. While the latter may seem like a smoking deal, consider how attached you are to indoor plumbing. Bolinas currently has a water meter moratorium in effect, which means that even if you bought the lot and installed a 200-square-foot beach shack, you’d have to run next door to use the neighbor’s toilet. Some of the lots on the market are so undesirable that they’ve been for sale for more than seven years — one of the many reasons the teardown market is so hot.

Why is buildable land so scarce? For an answer, look at a county map, which is swathed in green. According to Tom Lai, assistant director for the county’s Community Development Agency, 84 percent of the county is designated as open space or agricultural or has some kind of easement that precludes it from being subdivided. “Marin is quite rare in the Bay Area,” says Lai, “being so close to San Francisco and having so much open space.” Or put another way: Where else is almost every- one within walking distance of a trailhead?

Paul Smith, a real estate attorney and former mayor of Tiburon, says that we’re victims of our own success. He points to the population boom expected in Marin after the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937 and World War II ended. “There were supposed to be a lot more people,” he says, “but we’ve been very successful in shutting down development. The unintended consequence is that our property values are very high and so much of our land is protected and preserved that there aren’t many buildable vacant lots left.”

It also explains why two magnificent properties — each brimming with lots — remain undeveloped to this day. The first is the 110-acre St. Vincent’s/Silveira property, which straddles the divide between San Rafael and Ignacio. After many years of negotiations with the county, the land was zoned for 221 houses in 2007. But developers have not bitten, partly because the limited number of homes would make it hard to turn a profit.

The other property, the 110-acre Martha Property, lies on the Tiburon Peninsula off Paradise Drive. As we go to press, the county is still considering whether to zone the property for 43 or 32 homes, says Smith, who represents the owners, the Martha Company. Either way, 60 acres will remain as open space. But community opposition to the new housing is fierce, and at least one group, the Tiburon Open Space Committee, is trying to raise money to buy the land and designate it as open space.

This is not to say that there are no desirable vacant lots at all in Marin. There are, but they tend to go off market and even when you find one, the road to a dream home is challenging. There is a zoning review, which can take a year, and then a design review, which can take six to 12 months — and that’s before you even break ground. “You’re not calling the moving company for at least two years,” Strodder says.

Lionel Achuck, a Tiburon developer, can attest to how long and complicated the process is. He owns a 10-acre parcel in Tiburon, also off Paradise Drive, which he bought off market in 2006. It then took five years to get approval from the town to turn the parcel into two lots. He sold the two-acre lot recently and is now deciding whether to build an approved 9,000-square-foot home, with a tennis court and pool, for his family on the eight acres that remain. Buyers have come courting, and the most promising one is from China, which is little surprise. The Chinese place great value on land. And our land, it turns out, is about as valuable and rare as gold.