In a county not easily wowed by fame and fortune, George Lucas—the 120th richest person in the United States—has captured a place as Marin's richest and most famous resident. And now he's also one of the most controversial.
For three decades, the San Anselmo resident's Skywalker Ranch and Big Rock Ranch in Lucas Valley (no relation) in northern San Rafael have operated as unobtrusive arms of his Lucasfilm empire. The facilities sit back from the road, hidden from view behind hills. Nearly 5,000 acres of the 6,100 acres are preserved as open space and public hiking trails.
But in April Lucas surprised the county with his announcement that he was pulling out of plans for his third studio at Grady Ranch, near Skywalker and Big Rock, citing opposition from neighbors in the Lucas Valley Estates subdivision and the possibility of a protracted lawsuit.
"The level of bitterness and anger expressed by the homeowners in Lucas Valley has convinced us that, even if we were to spend more time and acquire the necessary approvals, we would not be able to maintain a constructive relationship with our neighbors," said the letter Lucas released at the time.
Instead, Lucas went on to say, he would build his studio somewhere where he wasn't viewed as "an evil empire." And he would work with developers to turn the Grady Ranch property into low-income housing.
Some hypothesized that the move was an attempt to speed up the approval process; in the letter, Lucas criticized the county for the four years he has already spent trying to obtain permits for Grady Ranch, despite previously having his master plan approved in 1999. Others thought that the call for low-income housing was a slap in the face of the Lucas Valley Estates residents, who might be less fond of a low-income development than they were of the Grady Ranch studio.
"Maybe there was a little bit of spite," said John King, who has lived in Lucas Valley since 1969. King, who was in favor of the Grady Ranch project, met Lucas during a community outreach meeting back when the master plan for the properties was being approved, and took a community tour of the ranches early last year.
If the call for low-income housing was a ploy, then Lucas isn't blinking.
The board of supervisors pleaded with Lucas, in what supervisor Susan Adams called a "Hail Mary," to move forward with the Grady Ranch project after his public withdrawal. Supporters argued that the white-collar jobs would be a boon to the county economy and that his environmentally friendly plan would have a lower impact than the 280 houses originally zoned for the property back in the 1970s.
But with the withdrawal of permit applications, the decision to abort the project became final.
"It's unfortunate that the Grady Ranch project plug was pulled, for a variety of reasons," said Adams.
Lucas is also moving ahead with plans to develop low-income housing, with the Marin Community Foundation funding the project. Lynne Hale, Lucasfilm's public relations director, said in press statement, "We are delighted that a prestigious organization such as the Marin Community Foundation is looking into the possibility of working with developers for Grady Ranch."
Dr. Thomas Peters, president of the Marin Community Foundation, says the proposal is in very early stages, but that he has been in "close communication" with Lucas and developers.
While no application has been submitted to the county, the ranch is being considered as a possibility for senior housing.
The remote location poses a couple of challenges, however. Most low-income housing is built along transit corridors or near public transit, with some exceptions, said Peters. Additionally, infrastructure would have to be extended out Lucas Valley to the site. Financially, it simply may not make sense to build a low-income project there.
"This is a maximum challenge to see if we can do this," said Peters.
It's also unclear what the property can be zoned for and how much of the preserved open space has been permanently deed-restricted against future development.
"There's an idea on the table," said Adams. "This is very, very early in the process."
And the proposal may come up against neighborhood opposition.
The Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association, which disbanded five years ago and quickly reformed last fall, opposed the Grady Ranch development, but has no position yet about the low-income housing.
The Lucas Valley Homeowners Association, a different subdivision further in from Grady Ranch, had no position on the project, but mistakenly received a number of angry emails and phone calls blaming them for Lucas' decision, said office manager Janice Cunningham. The Lucas Valley HOA has an election for officers and dues, said King, while the Lucas Valley Estates association is just a handful of volunteers who represented their own views.
While community opinions are mixed about Marin's most famous filmmaker, residents are also quick to point out all the good he has done.
In San Anselmo, Lucas has built himself a large house after buying up—at very high prices and generous agreements—a number of the properties around him. Neighbors received small Christmas thank-you's for putting up with construction, but some are still not fans.
Down the street, Lucas paid for the undergrounding of utilities along Red Hill Avenue, bought and rebuilt the beloved Amazing Grace music store to stop them from being evicted, and maintains the median at the entrance to town. In downtown San Anselmo, he owns a building that has been empty for the better part of a year, but which he hopes to turn into a town center and park for the community.
"Everything he does is good," said San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce president Connie Rodgers. "I hope we've all learned a lesson from the Grady Ranch ordeal."
Even Lucas seems to acknowledge that his good works may not be fully appreciated. In the letter that announced the end of Grady Ranch, he bitingly says the community just doesn't want his open space preservation, creek restoration or the services provided the county by his on-site fire truck and emergency personnel.
"Maybe," said the letter, "we're ahead of our time."