Fairfax explores land deal for open space preservation

A prized undeveloped tract of land in Fairfax that has been eyed for housing for the past decade has been lost to foreclosure, and town officials want to preserve it as open space.

The Town Council voted unanimously in a closed session on Tuesday to begin exploring the feasibility of acquiring the land known as the Wall property. The council also supported ordering an appraisal and a preliminary geotechnical report that will examine the condition and stability of the land.

Mayor Chance Cutrano said he and Vice Mayor Barbara Coler were appointed to a subcommittee to oversee the process.

The property north of downtown offers sweeping views of Mount Tamalpais and beyond, and has been a longtime haven for wildlife, hikers and dog walkers.

Concern about the property’s future has been a major topic of discussion among locals since heart surgeon Dr. Alan Wall sold the property for $1.75 million to a group of investors headed by Mill Valley developer Marshal Rothman in 2013. Rothman intended to build homes on the property.

“It’s sort of this gem conservation property in Fairfax,” Cutrano said.

“You can walk from the center of Fairfax right up to the ridgeline,” which connects to county-maintained trails leading all the way to the ocean, Cutrano said. “That’s been the real thrust of interest over the years, to preserve this ecological opportunity, and have the ability to have the scenic vistas and ridgelines intact.”

The property is zoned to accommodate a maximum of one house per 10 acres.

Rothman’s earlier proposals called for dividing the property into 10 lots and building 10 homes ranging from 4,243 to 4,958 square feet. He also proposed to provide an easement to allow for public trails on the private land.

At that time, the town’s general plan prevented him from clustering the houses.

In 2019, Rothman offered to sell a 10-acre portion of the land to the town for $500,000. The Town Council rejected the offer, citing unknown maintenance and wildfire management costs.

Earlier this year, Rothman attempted to file a revised proposal under the California Housing Accountability Act, which would have precluded the town from using its zoning or general plan standards to disapprove the project if it met certain requirements. To be eligible, at least 20% of proposed homes must be affordable for low-income residents or 100% of the homes must be affordable for moderate-income residents.

The proposal added a standalone 15-condominium complex to meet the the law’s requirements. That plan reached a stalemate, primarily over a fee dispute.

Timberstone 4038T LLC was the limited liability company Rothman used to purchase property. Timberstone borrowed $1.5 million in 2018 to pay for construction of the project.

According to court documents, Rothman’s inability to secure approvals from Fairfax caused Timberstone to default on the loan. Timberstone filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Rothman could not be reached for comment.

The property was lost at a foreclosure auction on Aug. 3. The opening bid was set at $1 million. No bids ensued, and the property reverted back to the lender.

According to county assessor’s records, the property is owned by Marinda Heights LLC. Jason Freskos, owner of Sequoia Mortgage Capital Inc., said the limited liability company is under the control of his San Anselmo business.

Freskos said he approached town officials expressing interest in negotiating a deal. Freskos declined to disclose the asking price, saying only that “we’re willing to sell it to them for less than we would otherwise be able to get from a developer.”

“We’re so in favor of this being added as open space to Fairfax that we’ve held off on approaches from developers,” Freskos said. “We really want to work with them.”

Jonathan Braun, a board member of the Marin Open Space Trust, or MOST, said the Wall property is contiguous with the Hawthorne Canyon Preserve in San Anselmo. He said MOST is raising funds to add another 9.4 acres, known as Upper Hawthorne Canyon, to that preserve.

MOST has applied with the Marin County Open Space District for a Measure A grant to help reach its $550,000 fundraising goal for that project.

“I think MOST is wanting and willing to assist the town of Fairfax to the extent that we can to acquire the Wall property,” Braun said.

“In fact, if it was acquired, paired with the Hawthorne acquisition, that would represent a 150-acre integral preserve on the north side of the Ross Valley, which would be absolutely amazing,” Braun said. “That’s a really big deal.”

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