Rural residents strike back at Lucas film empire

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NICASIO, California (AP) — 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 (25,000-square-meter) 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 residents 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 (15.5-meter)-tall, mission-style compound with two 85-foot (26-meter) towers, two indoor sound stages as well as an outdoor stage of nearly 7,000 square feet (650 square meters). 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 (1,200-meter) 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 (2,470 hectares) 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.

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