Atop a wind-swept Marin County ridgeline bordering one of the country’s most iconic national parks, a years-long fight over a ritzy home building project has once again landed in court.

The still-empty lot at 99 Wolfback Ridge Road in Sausalito commands breathtaking views of the neighboring Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco and great swaths of the San Francisco Bay.

Owners Oigonjargal Bazardsad and Tserenpuntsag Tsedendamba bought the roughly 41,000-square-foot property in 2017 for a little over $8 million, according to the Marin County Assessor’s Office, and the following summer they submitted plans to build a home.

After “numerous revisions” and four public hearings, the city’s Planning Commission voted 3-2 to approve the project in April 2021, according to a report prepared by city staff.

Two neighbors, Bruce McMillan and Steve McArthur, along with Friends of Marin Headlands for Responsible Development — all of whom have long rallied in opposition to the new home — appealed the decision to the City Council, which denied their request during a special meeting in July.

About three months later, McArthur and McMillan sued the city, essentially alleging the approved home is too big.

“It’s a beautiful, absolutely pristine ridgeline,” McMillan said. “This house will be fabulously conspicuous.”

If built as approved, it will be visible from Alcatraz Island, Angel Island, Crissy Field, Aquatic Park, the Presidio and the GGNRA, McMillan said.

“It’s going to be a big showy house right smack dab in the middle of that ridgeline,” he said.

In their lawsuit, the two neighbors allege the proposed home and its garage would be 6,585 square feet — about twice the average size of the area’s existing houses and roughly 50 percent larger than what was originally envisioned by the environmental impact report governing development in the Wolfback Estates subdivision, of which it is a part.

In addition, the suit alleges that the new home would block McArthur’s view of San Francisco and would “create a looming effect” over McMillan’s house by blocking light and impeding his privacy, among other things.

The seeds of a dispute

The suit was filed in October but the seeds of the dispute were planted 35 years ago, when Sausalito city officials fought — and failed — to prevent the land’s previous owner, Allen Patterson, from subdividing the land for single-family home development.

In 1987, Patterson submitted his plans to the city, which denied his request in 1990 after reviewing the environment impact report of the then-proposed subdivision.

In “the mistake that led to the Wolfback Estates subdivision,” the Sausalito City Council missed a legal deadline to reject Patterson’s proposal and he filed a lawsuit over its original decision, according to McArthur’s and McMillan’s suit.

Patterson and the city reached a settlement agreement in 1997 that, along with the original EIR and the city’s existing building codes, is supposed to guide development in the area, said McArthur’s lawyer Elizabeth Brekhus.

Property along Wolfback Ridge in Sausalito commands sweeping views of Sausalito, San Francisco Bay and Marin Headlands. Residents worry that a large house planned on the ridge will obstruct those views and create other environmental impacts. (Photo by Kiley Russell/Bay City News Foundation)

“Essentially, the city had a very firm understanding as to what they were going to do and allow up there,” Brekhus said. “The mayor (at the time) wrote a letter to the residents and said, ‘Look, we’re settling based on the fact that we’re going to have these very strict controls.’”

What the neighbors want, Brekhus said, is for the city to scale back the project based on the subdivision’s environmental review documents and the 1997 settlement agreement, which envision homes of between 2,000 and 4,000 square feet with two-car garages.

“I think it’s kind of a case of municipal amnesia. At one point in time, the city leaders had a firm understanding of the subdivision and the (environmental) impacts,” Brekhus said.

“I think that the city leaders presently don’t have that same perspective and they believe that the settlement agreement is not an enforceable document,” she said.

In addition to McArthur and McMillan, a sizable group of community members have objected to the project and at one point Friends of Marin Headlands for Responsible Development submitted hundreds of signatures in opposition.

“We did a campaign saying, ‘Guys, do you realize what’s going on out there on the ridge?’ and people were shocked,” said Friends of Marin Headlands’ Linda Fairchild.

Fairchild said that if built as proposed, the home at 99 Wolfback Ridge Road would set a precedent for larger, more conspicuous construction projects in the subdivision, where Tsedendamba owns three other parcels.

Lots of land, little price tag

He purchased those vacant lots for a surprisingly low price of $15,000 total in 2020 after spending more than $8 million for a piece of land in the same subdivision in 2017.

All of the property was bought from Alan R. Patterson, son of the previous owner who established the subdivision back in 1987.

The 2020 transaction, however, drew the attention of Marin County Assessor Shelly Scott.

“We didn’t feel (the $15,000 purchase) was an accurate representation of fair market value,” Scott said. “I’m sorry, no vacant land in Marin County is selling for $15,000. It’s just not happening.”

Ultimately, the three lots were enrolled by her office at a value of $2 million apiece, according to Scott.

Upon hearing about the lawsuit involving plans for the $8 million property, Scott said her curiosity has once again been piqued.

“I’m going to be taking a look at that to see if there’s any further information we might be interested in,” she said.

“We didn’t feel (the $15,000 purchase) was an accurate representation of fair market value. I’m sorry, no vacant land in Marin County is selling for $15,000. It’s just not happening.”

Shelly Scott, Marin County assessor

Tsendendamba’s lawyer, listed as Riley Hurd in court documents, didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did Patterson.

Sausalito Mayor Jill Hoffman declined to comment since the issue is now the subject of a lawsuit but the city did receive several letters in support of the project, including from neighbors of the proposed home.

At least two supporters wrote that they believe Tsendendamba intends to donate his other lots to the GGNRA, but a park spokesperson said such an arrangement is not currently in the works.

“We have not been contacted by the landowner regarding potential acquisition or donation of these adjacent properties,” said spokesperson Julian Espinoza.

“We have worked closely with the City of Sausalito Planning Department and the project’s architect for the past three years,” Espinoza said in an email. “We are satisfied with the project modifications that have been made to protect park interests.”

A case management conference has been set for March 22 in Marin County Superior Court.

“The (desired) outcome will be a house that complies with the EIR recommendations, a modest small house like all the other houses in the neighborhood that are sort of hidden and is not all glass and conspicuous and gigantic and a show piece,” McMillan said.

“The architecture looks beautiful but it belongs in Belvedere or Beverly Hills,” he said.

Kiley Russell writes primarily for Local News Matters on issues related to equity and the environment. A Bay Area native, he has lived most of his life in Oakland. He studied journalism at San Francisco State University, worked for the Associated Press and the former Contra Costa Times, among other outlets. He has covered everything from state legislatures, local governments, federal and state courts, crime, growth and development, political campaigns of various stripes, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.