Commission sued over power abuse

04/11/2013

This week the Alliance for Local Sustainable Agriculture and I filed a lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission on behalf of Drake’s Bay Oyster Company for actions that conform neither to the provisions of the 1976 California Coastal Act nor to that act’s spirit. This is an extraordinarily painful step for me to take, as I was co-chair of the Marin County effort to support Proposition 20 that created the coastal commission in 1972; I served on the North Central regional commission for eight years, and for two years as chair. I have been a strong supporter ever since the commission was formed 40 years ago. The coast of California is clearly better off with the coastal management the commission has provided.

The issue of the oyster farm is very divisive. Because of my history with the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), there may be confusion and misunderstanding as to whether I am speaking for MALT in my opposition to the commission’s actions. I am not. I am only speaking for myself as a long-term coastal advocate. Because of the potential for misunderstanding on this point, I have stepped down from the MALT board during the pendency of the matter. This action is also very painful to me, and I hope the commission will quickly reverse its course on the oyster farm and continue its usual fine work preserving the stunning coastline of California.

Why did we file suit? In enacting a cease and desist order and a restoration order against Drake’s Bay Oyster Company on February 7, the coastal commission made a mistake in judgment based on a flawed staff presentation. It also ignored its own policies—policies that support mariculture, agriculture and visitor-serving enterprises. The commission also ignored the Local Coastal Program, which strongly supports the oyster farm. In effect, commissioners committed an abuse of power.

The cease and desist and restoration orders would result in the coastal commission bankrupting a ranching family that has lived in Point Reyes National Seashore for several generations and which operates the first organic beef ranch in Marin County, along with the oyster farm. This is not what many of us deem to be good coastal-zone management. The orders could also cause unknown and unconsidered harm to the highly productive Drakes Estero by requiring the removal of millions of oysters, as well all the clams and oyster racks that are owned by the National Park Service. The cease and desist and restoration orders were made in error and must be rectified by the coastal commission.

The cease and desist order covers three items: the repair of a broken electric line for which the Lunny family had a county permit; the purchase of six picnic tables that needed replacement and six new ones to accommodate the increased number of weekend visitors (placing these tables was considered development by the coastal commission); and the removal of an unsafe porch from a mobile home that had become a hazard (this was also considered development). Is this appropriate coastal management, or is it, perhaps, a vindictive action on the part of commission staff?

Because the oyster farm is so important as a source of high-quality food—the operation generates about 50 percent of California’s oysters and supplies other oyster growers that could not otherwise meet customer demands—the decision to remove the oyster farm is both controversial and ecologically significant for the region. Oysters also provide a significant benefit to the ecosystem.

Concerns that oyster boats disturb harbor seals have been proven untrue in several ways, including by three years of photos secretly taken by the park service. Harbor seal populations are at a record-high level along this part of the coast, according to the Marine Mammal Commission. Seal disturbances are caused by unanticipated kayakers and hikers, not by oyster boats, which have routine routes well known to the seals. Other than the ranches and the oyster farm, which are included in a pastoral zone and have existed for over 100 years, the vast majority of land in the seashore is public, and presumably always will be.