Rural residents strike back at Lucas film empire

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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 (18-kilometer) public hiking and biking trail; they’ve devoted 800 acres (320 hectares) 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 that 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.

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