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Candidates talk housing, downtown, diversity in lead-up to Aug. 29 election

With voting underway in the Aug. 29 special Town Council election, Tiburon residents are tasked with deciding between two candidates vying for one open seat on the board.

Stefanie Cho and Isaac Nikfar are competing for the partial term, which runs through November 2024. Both candidates participated in follow-up interviews with The Ark last week after a July 27 candidate forum hosted by The Ark and moderated by the League of Women Voters of Marin County to discuss town outreach, downtown Tiburon, Caltrans and Tiburon Boulevard, housing and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Faced with a hypothetical $1 million grant to use however they wanted in Tiburon, Cho, 60, said she would dedicate that money to “help close the gap on the Martha property and ensure that we all have access to that beautiful open space.”

Landowner the Martha Co. has agreed to sell the property for $42.1 million to the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which in turn will sell it to the county for $26.1 million.

The county’s share will come primarily from the proceeds of Measure M, a $335 annual parcel tax levied on residents of Belvedere and Tiburon south of Trestle Glen Boulevard. The Trust for Public Land plans to fundraise to close the gap, and Tiburon pledged a $1-million contribution toward that effort in November.

Were that funding already to be complete, Cho said she would spend a hypothetical grant on efforts to combat climate change, such as installing more electric-vehicle charging stations.

Nikfar, 44, serves on the town’s Parks, Open Spaces and Trails Commission and said he would allocate “a pretty good chunk” of the hypothetical grant toward park beautification and pedestrian safety improvement. He’d like to see other funds allocated to street safety and improvements, such as paving roads and timing traffic lights.

Both candidates offered suggestions on how the town could enhance its digital outreach to residents.

Cho referenced the potential for improved disaster preparedness, noting that Marin residents are encouraged to register for county alerts from AlertMarin and Nixle. She called for greater outreach to ensure people are aware of these services.

However, Cho said she did not see a wider need for any sort of app or electronic messaging to communicate with residents, referencing to the town’s demographics and suggesting that among the older population, “a lot of people don’t even have cellphones — or use them.” She instead emphasized the need to distribute physical materials or handouts to residents regarding emergency preparedness.

She cited the need for more active programs, referencing the Tiburon Police Department’s disaster-prep education program “Get Ready 94920” and the Belvedere-Tiburon Joint Disaster Advisory Council, which is tasked with advising both municipalities’ councils on disaster preparedness on the Tiburon Peninsula. The advisory council last met in May.

“And so that’s why I think we need to get these committees going again,” Cho said. “We need to get people to meet each other.”

Nikfar said he favored automating processes in certain areas of town governance, such as steps in the permitting process through the Building Department.

“I think that by automating some of the steps and letting residents submit things more seamlessly and putting in automated checks to make sure that certain items are in place, and that the benchmarks have been met, that can help take some of the burden off of town staff and also speed up some of the time with that process,” Nikfar said.

He also called for a more unified communication front from the town. Email outreach is separate from what’s on Instagram, which is separate from what is on Facebook, which is different from what’s on Nextdoor, Nikfar said; he added there are different ways in which the Tiburon Police Department and Tiburon Fire Protection District communicate as well.

“But there are really effective tools that can be leveraged to help automate that and make sure that you have consistent messaging and identical messaging that’s timed to go out in the same moment across those different platforms,” Nikfar said.

Both candidates spoke positively about the state of downtown. Cho pointed to the many restaurants she said are encouraging pedestrian activity, while Nikfar suggested local events in Zelinsky Park, behind Town Hall, could work in tandem with downtown events to draw more people, calling events “a great use of those spaces.” Nikfar said hosting more family-friendly events in town and marketing downtown as helpful options for enhancing the area.

Cho pointed to the bustle of the downtown area and her enjoyment of its offerings. While she initially said she was interested in more events that close Main Street, such as the Tiburon Peninsula Chamber of Commerce’s Friday Nights on Main, she said she recognized there’s a “happy medium” that exists with street closures.

Holding events downtown has become controversial in recent years, as some Ark Row businesses have complained about closing Main Street for downtown events, saying cars coming from Tiburon Boulevard are blocked from the direct route to the Main Street parking lot or to the single-sided street parking and that eventgoers don’t round the corner to patronize Ark Row businesses.

In May, the council approved a maximum of six events for Main Street, with three of those closures going to the Tiburon Peninsula Chamber of Commerce for a “One Night Only” Friday Nights on Main event, held in June; the Summer Sunday Funday shop-local event July 23; and the annual December holiday festival. The other three slots this year went to a closure to celebrate the start of the Little League season in March and Juneteenth and Nowruz festivals.

Cho and Nikfar agreed that the multicultural events that take place in Tiburon are both beneficial to fostering community in town and to improving diversity, equity and inclusion. Both candidates said the town’s efforts to promote diversity are on the right track.

Cho said Tiburon is “making very broad, sweeping efforts” since 2020 in addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in town.

“I think all the right attempts are being made,” Cho said. “Progress may seem slow, but it takes time to bring people together and to keep committees together and to have enough momentum.”

Nikfar said the town has made efforts to promote diversity in hiring practices and build community through learning about different cultures. Nikfar also praised former Councilmember Noah Griffin — whose interim seat is the one up for election after he resigned in January for personal reasons — for his commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and said he wants to see Tiburon build on that work.

He said he thought Tiburon should continue on the path it’s on and doesn’t need to “radically change course,” offering praise for the Diversity Inclusion Task Force’s efforts.

“It feels like we have some good momentum in this town, and I think we keep that momentum going,” he said.

When it comes to working with Caltrans to address traffic and other issues on the state-maintained Tiburon Boulevard, Cho noted the importance of working with Caltrans to fix unsafe areas; she cited unsafe biking conditions and noted cyclists’ hopes to get repaving done to make roads safer for them.

“Effectively interacting to try to get those changes made would be very beneficial,” Cho said.

Nikfar said Tiburon’s relationship with Caltrans requires someone to roll up their sleeves and commit to building relationships. He advocated for knowing who’s who at Caltrans and who can effect change on Tiburon Boulevard.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re working with those people and that they understand what’s going on and that we’re advocating for the town as much as possible and getting Tiburon put into these priority lists … for making changes,” he said.

Nikfar said the town should take the same approach with the state Department of Housing and Community Development when tackling housing mandates.

Tiburon must identify and accommodate sites for at least 639 new units over the next eight years. In May, the town adopted a plan for 692 units, most of them concentrated downtown. The plan also identifies a 9.6-acre property at 4576 Paradise Drive that the town says could realistically be developed with 93 units; however, neighbors have been vocal in opposing development there, citing safety, traffic and environmental concerns.

While the housing plan is now local law, the town is still awaiting formal state approval.

“I don’t know that we would be in the position we were in if we had better relationships with the folks at the state level,” Nikfar said. He said he hopes the town could use an improved relationship to leverage a quicker restoration of local control or to help make the state realize what is being implemented is “not sustainable.”

“It’s just not sustainable for you to throw numbers and stuff out there and get us to look for site locations,” Nikfar said.

Cho agreed with Nikfar’s sentiments, saying she thought the department of Housing and Community Development had inflated housing mandates “beyond what’s reasonable” and questioned the “one-size-fits-all” approach. She said she supported reasonable pushback but would be open to litigation as a last-ditch effort.

Cho acknowledged the town’s need to make difficult decisions that may be unpopular among residents, adding that ultimately the town has to comply with the state to produce an approved housing element.

“But after that, if the state just continues on this path of destruction, really, where all they want to do is implement housing and they really don’t care about the effects in any particular jurisdiction and they want to just take away all local control so that it’s all state-run housing, I think that’s what we need to fight back on,” she said.

Nikfar challenged the need for a lawsuit at all, reiterating wanting to build relationships to help state housing officials understand Tiburon’s nuances, including topography and steep lots, one primary road and a lacking public transit infrastructure. He said the ultimate goal is sustainable growth, but in order to achieve that locally, the state needs to be aware of Tiburon’s circumstances.

“If you don’t have a sustainable path to growth, then you’re just putting burdens and stress on infrastructure, and that’s not good for anybody,” Nikfar said. “I don’t think the state even knows that.”

Reach Tiburon reporter Francisco Martinez at 415-944-4634.



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