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Rural residents strike back at Lucas film empire

Luke Skywalker would be proud. A rebel alliance has formed in the hills north of San Francisco to fight a perceived Evil Empire.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Luke Skywalker would be proud. A rebel alliance has formed in the hills north of San Francisco to fight a perceived Evil Empire.

The alliance is a group of Marin County homeowners. Their phantom menace is George Lucas, the world-renowned filmmaker whose Star Wars Trilogy sky-rocketed him to acclaim and fortune.

The plot is simple: Lucas wants to expand his filmmaking empire in the quiet valley that has been home to his Skywalker Ranch for three decades, building a 270,000-square-foot digital media production compound on historic farmland known as Grady Ranch. Neighbors say the massive structure will constrain their lifestyle with additional noise, traffic and harmful environmental impacts on the pristine countryside.

But the plot thickens. Other neighbors say Lucas has been a stellar neighbor and a steward of the land who has protected massive swaths of agricultural acreage from housing developments, while bringing jobs and tax-paying residents to the community.

It will all play out before what is likely to be a wide audience at the Marin County Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 27.

Residents of Lucas Valley Estates, a subdivision of 174 midsize to upscale homes about a half-hour drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge, are leading the charge against Grady Ranch. They believe the latest Lucas compound is simply too big for Lucas Valley, named for a 19th century rancher and no relation to the 67-year-old filmmaker.

"This is really the last gateway of historic farmland up here," said Liz Dale, an economist who specializes in land policy. "This is a nonsensical location."

The neighbors say Lucasfilms Ltd. pulled a stealth move on them, quietly taking a master plan that was passed in 1996 by the county supervisors, and then presenting a revised plan before the planning commission in December with what they say was little public notice.

That plan includes a 51-foot-tall, mission-style compound with two 85-foot towers, two indoor sound stages as well as an outdoor stage of nearly 7,000 square feet. There will be screening rooms, guest housing for visiting production teams, a general store and cafeteria for employees, as well as a 4,000-square-foot wine cave for private tastings and storage of the wine and olive oil produced on the working ranches.

Lucasfilm hopes to have the necessary permits in place and break ground by next year, with construction taking 18 months to two years.

"When the plan was passed in 1996, everybody had George Lucas stars in their eyes and whatever he wanted, they were happy to give," said Rachel Kamman, a water resources engineer who lives in another nearby subdivision.

"They wanted him to stay in Marin County," she said. "We still want him to stay in Marin County; people value his job, we value his industry, the creativity, and people think it's reflective of this county. But this is a big-boxed, outsourcing facility with significant unmitigated environmental impact."

Lucas' other projects include Skywalker Ranch and Big Rock, all adjoining the Grady compound. Combined, they comprise some 6,100 acres of grassy knolls, valleys and steep hillsides. Yet 95 percent of that land remains undeveloped and protected.

Skywalker houses sound and recording studios used for film and television scores and sound effects. Big Rock houses Lucasfilm Animation, multimedia office space and the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Both have a working fire brigade with fire trucks and full-time firefighters who have helped other communities in Northern California.

Neighbors acknowledge that Skywalker and Big Rock have fit quietly into the community, but worry the bigger structure at Grady Ranch could one day morph into anything from a theme park to a casino, a winery or hotel.

"This is a way to get in, and then it's too big to fail," said Carl Fricke, an environmental scientist who lives down the winding, two-lane road that runs past all the Lucas ranches and the homeowners of Lucas Valley Estates.

Tom Forster, director of communications at Skywalker, insists the digital production facility at Grady will be no temple of doom. It will eventually be screened from view when the trees mature, there will be minimal noise and they will spend millions to mitigate traffic concerns.

"We're a really strong film company, in fact the only one in the Bay Area, and we have such a good and strong history of employing thousands and doing good work — with no history of these various fears of tremendous noise and ugly traffic," Forster said.

There will be an 11-mile public hiking and biking trail; they've devoted 800 acres to Marin County open space that will never be developed, power lines will be underground and new bridges and water tanks will be installed to protect the creek and offset water use.

The Grady Ranch digital production facility will employ 340 people and most of the parking will be underground.

"We've been good stewards of the land; we cleaned up all the old farm dumps and rusted cars and trash and old refrigerators that were discarded in the creek beds," Forster said, as he drives by a covered wooden bridge and ancient tractor equipment on display in the fields.

Emilie Nicks, director of corporate communications for Lucasfilm, said she's frustrated none of the Lucas Valley Estates homeowners has approached them to talk about the plan.

She wants them to know that digital filmmaking no longer requires the crash-bang of the old film sets and that their sound stages are so well insulated with acoustical walls that noise does not carry outside; the outdoor stage will be used mainly to capture natural lighting.

"It's important to us to be good neighbors and respectful of their concerns," she said.

The neighborhood association said they'd like to work with Lucasfilm to help them find other locations in Marin County, closer to the commercial corridor along Highway 101.

"I think that he could be a hero if he did a sensitive project in this location," said Tom Taylor, an architect and Lucas Valley Estates resident. "It could be something that makes a statement about what he's created in his career, rather than slapping something the size of two football fields out there. It looks like a casino or a theme park, any shopping mall in any place."

John Newman, president of a small wine business who lives in Marinwood, two subdivisions down from Lucas Valley Estates, believes it's "disingenuous" for his neighbors to complain about the Lucas ranches. He said it's a textbook case of not-in-my-backyard mentality.

"Skywalker has been an excellent neighbor," Newman said. "They've kept a low profile and they've had 30 years of demonstrating that they'll do anything possible to accommodate the community."

He noted that many Lucasfilm employees live in the community and that the alternative might have been more houses on Grady Ranch.

"That's a gift and a blessing to the community that seems to be forgotten by the homeowner's association," Newman said.