Two compete for interim seat on Tiburon’s Town Council
The two candidates vying for an interim seat on the Tiburon Town Council include a longtime member of the Parks, Open Spaces and Trails Commission who says he wants to take a proactive approach to bettering the community and a relative newcomer to town who says her interest in civic service and career in tax preparation would make her an asset to the board.
Isaac Nikfar will face Stefanie Cho in the Aug. 29 special election to replace Noah Griffin, who resigned in January for family reasons. It’s Nikfar’s second bid for the board after he failed to unseat one of the incumbents — Alice Fredericks, Jack Ryan and Jon Welner — last November.
The winner of the Aug. 29 contest will serve the remaining year on Griffin’s term, through November 2024, and would then be eligible to run for a full four-year term on the five-member council.
Cho says she’s dedicated to learning about town
Cho, 59, moved to Tiburon from Los Angeles in 2020 with her husband, Albert, who is retired from the film industry. She has two grown children from a previous marriage.
A native of Ohio, Cho attended New College of Florida before transferring to the University of California at Los Angeles, where she earned her bachelor’s in psychology.
She built her career in tax preparation, eventually starting her own boutique firm, The Krutilek Group, in 2012, which she closed in 2019.
While living in Southern California, she said, she followed the news closely, particularly local politics, and was active in her community, helping friends with their campaigns for local office and helping to start up and run a neighborhood-watch program in her Sherman Oaks neighborhood.
Since moving to Tiburon, she said, she’s tried to learn more about the issues facing the community, spending a lot of time listening to recordings of past Town Council and other board meetings to understand what issues are important to residents and how residents interact with local boards.
Cho said she possesses several qualities she believes would be useful as a councilmember, including financial acumen and the ability to understand complex issues and make sound decisions based on facts.
Running for office, she said, “seemed like a great opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do.” She said she believes her standing as a newcomer to town politics would allow her to bring a fresh perspective.
“There are so many people with so much to offer and decades of lives spent here and interacting here, but I think it does help to sometimes let somebody else come in who is equally invested and generally trying to learn,” she said.
Among the issues she said are top of mind for both her and residents is housing.
Under state 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. In the meantime, the Town Council last month approved rezoning and new objective design standards for downtown but held off on rezoning the Paradise Drive site in a nod to neighbor objections. The town has said it will try to find homeowners interested in developing second units, a strategy it hopes would allow it to drop the Paradise Drive property from its site list while still meeting state mandates.
Cho lamented the loss of local control over housing, noting that state laws have become “more numerous and more complicated.”
“They’re just overreaching, and there’s way too much control being exerted,” she said.
She said a lot of the state’s housing policies are aimed at punishing cities that don’t comply — but “cities don’t build housing, developers do.”
“We’re in the endless cycle of having to placate the state without being allowed to have an opinion,” she said, pointing out that Tiburon’s appeal to lower its housing allocation was denied.
She said she would be in favor of exploring litigation as a tool to push back against state mandates, though it’s unclear how successful that strategy might be.
“Sure, there’s no precedent, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt to find a way,” she said, though she added that pursuing litigation would have to be weighed against the cost and public support for doing so.
“Litigation is so expensive,” Cho said. “Is that something people want to have to pay for? We’ll see.”
Cho said she’s not “anti-housing” but is “anti-incredibly improper, draconian rules that just don’t allow for any local adjustments.”
She noted there are a lot of roadblocks that make it difficult to build affordable housing but suggested the town could explore purchasing units and converting them to affordable; Tiburon currently owns nine affordable units in the Point Tiburon Marsh condo complex that it rents out as workforce housing.
Cho said she believes the current council has handled the issue as best it can, given the constraints under which it operates.
“We’re fortunate that we had them at this time to shepherd it all through,” she said. “I wouldn’t criticize them at all. I just think it’s a tough situation, and they have to make the best of it.”
Cho also cited preserving open space as a priority for the town, including supporting Marin County’s pending purchase of the 110-acre Martha property on the Tiburon ridge.
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.
Cho said she voted for Measure M and that preserving the property is an “excellent cause.”
She said she’d also like to see more cohesive efforts around emergency preparedness, noting Tiburon is challenged by its varied topography. She said it appears different neighborhood groups sometimes organize their own efforts, pointing to a group of Sugarloaf Drive residents working together to get their neighborhood certified as a Firewise community and reduce fire risk, but she would like to see “the entire town have access to consistent information that everyone can implement so it isn’t so specialized.”
“I’m still trying to understand the way it works here and what people believe is the best way forward,” she said.
She also expressed support for the work of the Diversity Inclusion Task Force, especially the cultural events the group has organized, including what has become an annual celebration of Juneteenth and, last April, the inaugural celebration of Nowruz, the Persian new year.
“I appreciate everything Tiburon has been trying to do,” she said. “I think it’s appropriate and there’s room for even more.”
However, she said she couldn’t offer specific suggestions of issues she’d like to see the task force tackle, noting she doesn’t feel she has enough information about the group’s overall mission or goals. She said she’d like to see the group develop a strategic plan, something the group has said is a priority for the future.
If elected to the council, Cho said, she’d like to improve communication between the board and residents.
“I think it’s important to have constant dialogue and have a council member who will have regular office hours, so to speak,” Cho said, adding that would help residents better understand complex issues and any challenges or restrictions the council faces in making decisions.
She said she’s enthusiastic about the prospect of helping the town continue to thrive.
“I would be responsive, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about Tiburon in three years, which shows that I care,” Cho said.
Nikfar says parks board experience will be an asset
Nikfar, 44, moved to Tiburon in 2012. He lives in the Del Mar neighborhood with his wife, Jessica, and their three children: Victoria and Isaac, who both attend Redwood High School, and Arianna, a rising eighth-grader at Del Mar Middle School.
He grew up in Santa Clara and earned his bachelor’s in business from San Francisco State University, a portfolio-management certificate from Stanford University and an executive business certificate from Duke University. He works in sales at Google.
Over the years, he has coached soccer, baseball and softball for his kids’ teams and has been a leader for Tiburon Cub Scouts Pack 48.
His involvement in local youth sports was in part what motivated him to join the parks commission, where he has served since 2017; his current term runs through February 2026.
He noted his time on the board has given him insight into town issues and how various town boards and staff work together to accomplish goals.
Among the parks initiatives he’s most proud of, he said, is helping to develop the town’s Integrated Pest Management Policy, which restricts the use of herbicides to control weeds and invasive plants in the town’s parks and open spaces, and working with the town on current efforts to develop a master plan guiding the use, development and management of Tiburon’s 70-acre parks-and-open-space system.
He said he now wants to bring what he’s learned on the parks board to the Town Council to help make decisions that will improve the quality of life for all residents of the community.
“What I hope to do on the Town Council is to, of course, learn from folks that have been there for years and learn from all that experience, but also bring a fresh perspective, bring some energy and some proactiveness, the ability to roll up my sleeves and help get things done,” Nikfar said.
Like Cho, Nikfar pointed to meeting state housing mandates as one of the most pressing challenges facing Tiburon. He said there’s a fundamental disconnect between what the state requires and what Tiburon can practically accommodate. He noted there’s only one primary way in and out of town, and while Tiburon is served by ferry and bus lines, both have been reduced over the past few years.
Nikfar said there aren’t a lot of prime sites for development in Tiburon, calling the Paradise Drive site “not ideal” because of its slope and noting there are “very limited” sites available downtown without converting existing uses, such as parking lots.
He also noted it would be the town’s responsibility to figure out how to provide services to all the new residents that could result from state housing mandates.
He said the state doesn’t seem to have a nuanced understanding of the different challenges towns and cities might face in accommodating housing.
“The sides just haven’t been able to communicate or meet or get to that level of understanding about what’s going on,” Nikfar said. “Our voice hasn’t necessarily been heard at the state level.”
However, he said, he doesn’t think the town should pivot to litigation to try to get the state’s attention.
“If you’re generally looking to be fiscally responsible, going straight to litigation and racking up a huge bill, I don’t know that it’s necessarily the right move,” he said.
He said he favors spending the time trying to better educate state officials on the town’s point of view. Nikfar also said he supports the town’s plan to explore second units as a way to help it meet its housing allocation.
“There are other avenues that I think the state’s not necessarily giving us credit on, and they could be a better fit for Tiburon,” he said.
He noted that “every town grows,” and the council should remain focused on trying to do things “in a way that’s sustainable here.”
Nikfar also said he believes the council should prioritize traffic mitigation, noting that backups heading in and out of town on Tiburon Boulevard continue to worsen. Tiburon and Belvedere in launched the Yellow Bus Challenge in 2015, which offers subsidized bus passes for Reed Union School District students in an effort to reduce traffic congestion on the main thoroughfare. However, Nikfar said traffic backups still occur during the summer, which “tells us something needs to be done.”
While he said he doesn’t have any immediate solutions, he believes the town should be more proactive in collaborating with Caltrans, which maintains the road as a state highway.
“One of the things that would be really helpful for Tiburon is having someone kind of roll up their sleeves and be proactive in engaging with Caltrans, working with (Town Manager) Greg (Chanis) and working with town staff to solve some of these issues,” Nikfar said.
He also supports preserving the Martha property as open space, calling Measure M “fantastic” and saying the town should be open to future donation requests from the Trust for Public Land, which is working to raise the remaining money needed to complete the purchase.
Among his other priorities if elected, he said, would be to help bring more family-friendly events back to town. He pointed out the town had a higher number of events before the pandemic, including Blackie’s Hay Day, a benefit for the Belvedere-Tiburon Library held at Blackie’s Pasture; a downtown farmers market; and Friday Nights on Main, a summer street festival.
While he noted events vary in popularity and attendance, he believes there’s value in drawing families and residents downtown.
However, doing so 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 the Juneteenth and Nowruz festivals and a closure to celebrate the start of the Little League season in March.
Nikfar said spreading events around town is a good solution, and events held downtown should have the support of businesses.
“You want to make sure there’s some consensus between those about how many times is OK, but I think those are generally really positive for the community and I hope also for the local businesses,” he said.
As a candidate, Nikfar has held meet ups at Caffe Acri to hear from residents. He said in the time he’s lived in Tiburon, he doesn’t think the council has had much of a public presence. If he’s elected, he said, he hopes to continue hosting regular listening sessions and will make it a priority to make himself accessible to his constituents.
“I think it’s important that our residents understand that someone’s listening, somebody wants to hear what’s going on and wants to help,” he said.
Reach Assistant Editor Emily Lavin, The Ark’s education and youth reporter, at 415-944-3841.