Tim Westergren, the multi-millionaire founder of Pandora, the country's top Internet radio service, has his heart set on building a new home that many believe would be the largest private residence in rural West Marin County. This has not been music to his new neighbors' ears.
In an October 2013 email addressed "Dear neighbors," Westergren introduced himself and his wife, Smita Singh, founding director of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's Global Development Program, as the new owners of the 17-acre property at 135 Balboa Ave. For decades, it had been a Russian Orthodox monastery known as St. Eugene's Hermitage. The couple bought it in 2008.
"We wanted to check in, say hello and let you know how excited we are to begin the process of building our home in your lovely neck of the woods," they wrote. "Our program will be light on the land, and will be sustainably designed and built. We are big believers in integrating a home with its natural environment — minimizing the disturbance of both the land and the surrounding community."
Not long enough, as it turns out, for the project's many opponents, who have not been swayed by his just folks attempt to win them over.
"If you're someone who doesn't have an insane amount of money, then you build sensibly," said Nancy Stein, who has lived on Balboa Avenue for 40 years. "But because the money out there is insane, people are able to do outlandish things. I would like this place to stay open to musicians and artists, people who don't have a lot of money."
Judging from the many letters of opposition that have been sent to county planners, most residents are aghast at the size of the 8,297-square-foot project, which would have 14 bathrooms and up to 17 "functional" bedrooms, according to critics, and would be up to four times larger than the median-sized house in this community of remodeled summer homes, weekend cottages, rustic cabins and modest single-family dwellings.
Westergren says his plans call for nine bedrooms total, but the Inverness Association, an 84-year-old organization of property owners and preservationists, concludes that the second unit "functions as a six-bedroom, two bath housing unit with detached two-car garage" and the septic systems have been sized to service 11 bedrooms in the main residence and six bedrooms in the second unit.
In its report to the county's Community Development Agency, the Inverness Association notes that Westergren's "unusual application has generated unprecedented local interest and comment from residents in both the immediate neighborhood and the wider Inverness area."
In other words, the Point Reyes Peninsula is buzzing over the high-powered celebrity couple and the gated family compound they hope to build on land where humble monks used to pray in the solitude of their monastery.
The plans were filed by a limited liability company named Hidden Dragon. And, in an email to neighbors in September, the Internet entrepreneur tried to allay suspicions among locals that Hidden Dragon has a hidden agenda.
"In the short-term, our small family intends to use the property as a weekend and vacation retreat, with a long-term intention of retiring here," he wrote. "We can imagine having family and friends as guests, and perhaps annually hosting both our extended families for several weeks or more."
He explained that they needed that many bedrooms and bathrooms "so we can gather both our extended families on occasion on this beautiful property. Needless to say, this is very important to us."
This appeal resonated with Ivan and Sarah Diamond, who live on nearby Drakes Summit Road.
"Thank you and well done!!" they replied to Westergren's email. "We are completely supportive of your project."
But few are so unequivocal, and most are not buying much of what Westergren is selling. In addition to its alarm over the estate's size, the Inverness Association's report to county planners expressed concern over the development's impact on water resources (the property relies on a single well), the legality of the second unit, potential future use of the property and the 31 "heritage trees" that Westergren plans to cut down to carve out enough space for his family compound in the mature Douglas fir forest that covers the ridge. The land borders the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which makes it a rare and valuable piece of real estate that locals would like to see remain as unspoiled as possible. For generations, urban dwellers have escaped to Inverness for the joy of simple solace in its cool, coastal forests.
"I don't think you should purchase a forest, move in and cut it down," said musician Tim Weed, who lives across the street from the Hidden Dragon property.
Aside from the potential harm to the environment, locals are worried that Westergren will be the harbinger of an invasion by other wealthy property owners with similar designs on living in super-size houses that fly in the face of West Marin's earthy, unpretentious heritage.
"It's putting a toe in the water for McMansions in this area," said Ellen Shehadeh, a writer and editor for the weekly West Marin Citizen. "I feel like it could be a precedent, the beginning of something that we would not want here. The next person with a lot of money could do the same thing."
In her letter to county planners, Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, said she could foresee the Hidden Dragon complex paving the way for other large homes that would replace already scarce affordable housing.
"This would fundamentally, and forever, alter the character of the neighborhood," she wrote.
After graduating from Stanford, Westergren started Pandora in 1999 with two partners. The Oakland company went public in 2011, raking in a reported $138 million that year. The website Success Stories listed him as one of the "top 10 people who got filthy rich in 2011."
He has hired Olson Kundig Architects, a noted Seattle firm, to design his modern concrete, wood and glass house. Among its projects, Olson Kundig designed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitors Center, the Microsoft Envisioning Center as well as a number of private homes, including a glass farmhouse in northeast Oregon.
County planner Heidi Scoble said she expects the Hidden Dragon project to have a public hearing before the Planning Commission in January. As opponents prepare to challenge the project in the halls of county government, Westergren has indicated he's willing to at least consider the reasons for his new neighbors' opposition to a baronial estate they find offensive to their sensibilities and to the natural environment.
In an email response to an Independent Journal request for comment on the controversy, Westergren wrote, "Inverness is a special place and protecting the environment there is extremely important to me personally. I look forward to a collaborative and constructive dialogue with the community as I look to build a home for my family."
This story has been modified since initial publication.