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San Anselmo looks to exit Marin County flood control district through Measure F

San Anselmo residents to vote on whether to leave Marin County flood district
San Anselmo residents to vote on whether to leave Marin County flood district 04:06

One of the more unusual measures on the March ballot is Measure F in Marin County. On the surface, it's not very sexy: a small town wants to withdraw from a local flood control district. But it has stirred up a surprising amount of passion among people who are well aware of the risk of flooding in their community.

San Anselmo knows all about the danger of rising waters, so you'd think residents would be happy about an effort to reduce the risk of flooding in their downtown. Instead, the town is mounting a revolt against the county flood control district. And it's all happening because of a bridge.

San Anselmo takes flooding so seriously that they test a warning horn every Friday at 12 p.m. They've learned a tough lesson that dates back to a storm on New Year's Eve in 2005. That day, San Anselmo Creek rose up over its banks, sending a muddy river of water tearing through the downtown area. 

Ross Asselstine remembers it well.

"In that flood, the water was probably about 3 to 4 feet deep. And that is a 100-year flood," he said.

As a result, in 2007, the community voted to join the Ross Valley Zone 9 Flood Control District as a way to lessen the risk.

"They started collecting fees 14 years ago, and they have now burned through over $50 million and have done almost nothing. It's just amazing," said Asselstine, a lead organizer for Measure F.

But the last straw was a piece of property in the downtown area that was purchased in 2018 by the county using Zone 9 funds. It sits on a bridge over the creek and causes an obstruction to the creek's flow. The district wanted to demolish it, but during the pandemic shutdown, they allowed the town to use the space as an outdoor plaza.

"And that presented one of those amazing opportunities during COVID. And the town is in love with it and, I think justifiably so," Asselstine said.

But citing cracks in the structure,  the county closed the plaza for safety reasons and plans to continue the demolition. The community doesn't seem very happy about it.

"No. Everybody says it's not going to do anything. It might make an inch of difference. It might make no difference," said resident Tina Kroot. "There is a strong sense that we have not gotten our money's worth, because it could still flood."

It's not the first flood project the town has disagreed with. In 2015, voters killed a district plan to use Memorial Park as a flood basin. But the issue of the plaza was really the spark for Measure F, which would remove the town from the Zone 9 District completely. The initiative has the support of Mayor Eileen Burke.

"This isn't working. You know, there aren't elected officials from the towns that make any of the decisions. The decisions are all forced on us from the top down. And the decisions that they have made, we don't buy into," said Burke. "What I envision is that Flood Zone 9 will die, whether it's in this election or in three years when it's due to be renewed. I don't think any of the towns will renew it."

"The district, as it's been's been contentious," admitted Marin Supervisor Katie Rice. She sits on the Zone 9 district board and said she understands the frustration of people over the slow progress. But she opposes Measure F, saying San Anselmo homeowners will still be obligated to pay the flood fee until it sunsets in 2027, even if it passes.

"And they may also think they may be voting...their vote will, for some reason, stop the project of removing the bridge from going forward. And our attorneys are saying that's not the case," said Rice.

She said withdrawing from the district would remove the town's voice at the table.  But Asselstine said it doesn't feel like they ever had one.

"There's a string of craziness here that just needs to stop" he said.

So the rebellion is on. Measure F supporters say they are determined to cast off the district and deal with the problem on their own, come hell or high water.

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