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Posted on: February 7, 2024

February 7 - Message from the City Manager Regarding Friends Field

Todd Cusimano Headshot

February 7, 2024

Dr. Elizabeth Kaufman, Superintendent

Mill Valley School District
411 Sycamore Avenue
Mill Valley, CA 94941

Dear Elizabeth,

As I reflect on our phone conversation from January 24, 2024, where you expressed frustration over your team completing a recent title search and discovering that Friends Field is owned by the School District, I want to share that I understand the challenges stemming from the turnover within your team and the Board of Trustees. I feel compelled to share the historical record, which spans over half a century and pertains to the relationship between the District, City, and community, especially regarding this discussion. 

I have directed a team of 15 staff members and several community members to research the historical record and timeline of significant events to help bring to light the details of the long-standing collaboration regarding our jointly used recreation and educational areas. 

We’ve found documents that attest to a more than 70-year tradition of cooperation among our Board, Council, and community members to transform former landfill and marshlands into the beautiful civic facilities we now enjoy. In our search, we found clear evidence that the Mill Valley community, as represented by their elected School Board Trustees and City Council members, always intended the lands encompassing the Community Center, Friends Field and Middle School to be used for both recreational and educational purposes.

History of Collaboration and Agreements

Original Land Deed - In 1948, the area of land that now houses our Community Center, parking lots, sports fields, Middle School, SASM, and Public Works Corporation Yard, was deeded to the City for “park and recreation purposes.” 

Joint Master Planning Series for Recreation and Schools and “Project 17” - During the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the City, District, and community completed a joint master planning process for the entire portion of property deeded to the City in 1948 as well as all potential opportunity sites with the City. See Master Plan report.

Agreement to Exchange Properties - Council meeting minutes reveal that from mid-1966 to early 1969, the City and District collaborated and shared costs in the surveying and planning of the current middle school. On April 15, 1968, after years of public discussions, the City and District entered into an agreement to exchange properties situated on both sides of the Pickleweed Inlet. This transaction deeded the District the property now housing the Community Center and parking lot, Friends Field, and the Middle School Site. 

In this agreement, both parties acknowledged that the exchange of land "would greatly benefit the citizens and students of the City and District if this area can be jointly developed for educational and recreational use." The agreement specifies that the properties involved in the exchange must be exclusively used for these purposes "unless the parties mutually agree that other uses may be made of all or any portion of said properties." Please refer to the Agreement dated April 15th, 1968.

Years of Collaboration and User Agreements - After the property exchange in 1968, our organizations collaborated on drafting multiple Joint Use Agreements to delineate our roles and responsibilities in this joint endeavor. Please note the Agreement dated January 18, 1982, which summarizes several agreements and outlines the “joint use of the playfield area at the Mill Valley Middle School, under which the City improved and maintained the playfield with the parties sharing the expense of irrigation.” Notably, this agreement does not have an expiration date.

Blue Ribbon Committee - Another valuable and significant document highlighting our history of collaborative planning is the Community Center Report from April 1989. This report delineates the efforts of a blue-ribbon committee chaired by former Mayor Dick Spotswood, which included, among numerous volunteers, two members of the Mill Valley School District Board of Trustees. It stands as a testament to the unified vision of all stakeholders to utilize the properties for the enhancement of the entire community, using both City and District-owned facilities including a future Community Center, an updated Middle School Gymnasium, and renovated athletic fields. Notably, this jointly written report recommended relocating the athletic field to its current "north/south alignment" behind the Community Center.

Agreement to Allow City to Purchase Property from District - Please see August 12, 1993 agreement, which outlines the intent for the City to buy back the current footprint of the Community Center and Parking lot for $2.3 million dollars ($5 million in today’s dollars). These funds were used to add classroom space at Edna Maguire and Tam Valley Schools. The agreement outlined that the District would retain the use of the athletic field currently situated on the property site. When City developed the property, the City, at its own expense, would relocate the athletic field, and associated facilities, in accordance with the plans attached in the agreement.  

1996 Deed of Property (Known as Community Center and Parking Lot) - On February 14, 1996, the District and City executed the Grant Deed for the Community Center site and parking lot.

Construction of Community Center and Friends Field (1999-Early 2000’s) - The history and significance of Friends Field are intertwined with the adjacent Community Center, which was constructed with a combination of public and private funds. Following the work of the City, District and Community Blue Ribbon Committee in 1989, and the 1993 Purcase Agreement and 1997 purchase of property, the construction of the Community Center and Friends Field began. It was built at a cost of $12.8 million in 1997 (equivalent to $25 million today), with $6 million ($11.7 million today) from community donations. 

Friends Field - The District’s property, now known as Friends Field, was a former landfill that was converted to a grass playing field. The District struggled to pay the high costs of maintaining a field, which led to the 1982 and 1993 agreements referenced above, directed the City to relocate the old athletic field post construction of the Community Center site and build and renovate a new field where Friends Field is today. The initial relocation and renovation of the athletic field was approximately $1.4 million dollars ($2.5 million in today’s dollars) total and was 100% funded by the community. Since the late 1990’s the City, community members, and youth sports organizations have dedicated substantial funds from their own budgets, along with funds contributed by the Friends of Fields and user fees, all for the benefit of the field.

General Plan - Finally, in regard to the document review, I must direct your attention to the City's General Plan, which holds significant importance for Mill Valley. Acting as the bridge between the community's expressed values and vision, it guides the public process and decision-making impacting the physical, social, environmental, and economic aspects of the community. Adopted in 2014 following a multi-year process engaging hundreds of community members, the General Plan distinctly designates the Mill Valley Community Center and Friends Field as a “City Park.” Acknowledging the importance of a City’s General Plan, I am compelled to note that it is the official, codified sentiment of the Mill Valley community that Friends Field should therefore remain publicly available for the community’s shared recreational uses. Please see Page 14 of the Community Vitality Element of the General Plan.

It is evident that the Mill Valley community, as represented by their elected School Board Trustees and City Council members, consistently intended the land to be used for both recreational and educational purposes. Going all the way back to the 1950’s we believe that the community intended for the lower portion of the property to be dedicated to education, and the upper portion bordering East Blithedale for joint recreation purposes. 

It appears that any development of the Friends Field for a purpose other than joint recreation would require the approval of the City Council. If you have also discovered relevant documents, such as historical Master Planning documents, I would greatly appreciate it if you could share them with our team.

Community Impact

Next, I’d like to address the community impact on youth sports organizations, which not only utilize the field but also contribute significant funds through user fees and generous donations towards its upkeep and maintenance. With the data provided below, you can see that placing the new Middle School campus on Friends Field would significantly displace community users. Below, I present a summary of registered players by organization along with the residency rate based on the 94941-area code. Organizations provided participant registration data as part of the 2024 Youth Sports Organizations Field Allocation Process:

  • Mill Valley Soccer Club (MVSC) = 1,478 players, Residency: 78%
  • Southern Marin Lacrosse (LAX) = 905 players, Residency: 92%
  • Mill Valley Little League (MVLL) = 591 players, Residency: 97%
  • Southern Marin Youth Football (SMYF) = 224 players, Residency: 16%
  • Mill Valley Girls Softball (MVGS) = 108 players, Residency: 98%

Total registered participants in youth sports organizations utilizing all Mill Valley athletic fields: 3,306. Considering that field use rotates throughout seasons, over 2,500 participants utilize Friends Field in various capacities, including clinics, games, practices, or tryouts. 

Public/Private Partnership

Finally, it's important to emphasize that our goal isn't profit; rather, it's to benefit the community members and students of the City and District. I'd like to highlight that the community and City has made over $5 million in financial commitments since the mid 90’s to present day to construct, maintain, and repair Friends Field. On average, we allocate $180,000 annually for repairing and maintaining Friends Field, and we have done so for over 25 years. Meanwhile, we generate approximately $82,000 annually from user fees. On average, the City loses $98,000 per year on Friends Field. The City is committed to this financial investment because it is so important to the community. Please see the 5 Year Cost Analysis of Friends Field and the Friends Field 5-Year Gain (Loss) documents.

The gap in revenue to cover maintenance costs underscores the significance of our partnerships with local groups like Friends of Fields and youth sports organizations. These organizations contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to support youth recreation. Absent these partnerships, no organization could sustain the upkeep of fields as well-managed as Mill Valley’s fields. 

Conclusion

Understanding the historical context of land use planning for our shared recreational spaces is crucial. It sheds light on the expressed intentions behind the many decades of agreements and foundational documents guiding City and District actions. As my team has been immersed in historical documents for the past 9 days, of which there are thousands, one key message stands out above all others: the original intent of all the agreements and the actions taken by past generations of volunteers, elected officials and public servants, was to benefit the Mill Valley community with the joint development of these areas for educational and recreational use. 

The 1982 and 1993 agreements related to Friends Field stand to this day. From 2013 to 2019 we worked collaboratively to build upon the previous agreements to draft a comprehensive user agreement for all services and facilities within our shared scope. We remain guided by a thorough understanding of Mill Valley’s history and the vision for joint use, and we remain committed to fulfilling our obligations under these agreements. 

Elizabeth, although neither of us held our current positions in 2022, it's evident that those who backed Measure G through their endorsements, contributions, and votes shared a profound understanding of the area's historical context. They supported Measure G with the intention of financing the necessary repairs to the District’s Elementary Schools, as well as the Middle School on its existing site, to uphold this legacy. If the District had placed the relocation of the Middle School campus to Friends Field on the ballot as the intended purpose of the funds, it would have failed.

We urge you to take the time to delve into Mill Valley’s history and listen to the voices of the community—both past and present—to ensure a future that respects our shared history and serves the needs of generations to come.

We extend an offer to continue working together to find a workable solution to the renovation project and challenges. Some examples include following our predecessors’ collaborative actions, i.e. exchange, lease or purchase of properties, loaning City land for temporary District offices, and parking.

In an effort to understand issues related to Mill Valley Middle School - Concept C (building the Middle School on Friends Field), I have asked my staff to review the proposal and to identify concerns. Please see attached.

Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions or require further clarification.

Sincerely,

Todd Cusimano
City Manager 
City of Mill Valley

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