County hesitates on stream ordinance

06/20/2013

County supervisors decided to delay a vote on a controversial stream conservation ordinance on Tuesday, creating an ad hoc committee to determine how to both honor county guidelines and satisfy constituents. 

The decision came after 43 people made their respective cases—a handful speaking on behalf of environmental groups or homeowner associations, most speaking in defense of their own property. Only six people spoke in support of the ordinance, including representatives for the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN), the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group and the Watershed Alliance of Marin. 

Marin Audubon Society President Barbara Salzman said debating the ordinance was a misuse of staff and public time. She urged supervisors to adopt the measure. “It’s long past time,” she said.

Representatives for the San Geronimo Valley Stewards, the Sleepy Hollow Homeowners Association, the Marin Builders Association and the Marin Association of Realtors opposed the ordinance. After they spoke, rounds of handshakes and fist pumps from the packed crowd followed them to their seats. 

A man from Forest Knolls taped orange signs marking each end of a 100-foot distance from the clerk’s desk outside the meeting room to the opposing wall inside. “My lot size is 100 by 75. My whole property is in the disturbed area of the setback.”

An Inverness resident said he felt the ordinance  prioritized habitat over homeowners, and the debate was dividing the community. “I have five kids, and they are species, too. We need to keep balance not only between fish and man but also between man and man.”

A woman carried her laptop to the podium and spun it around so the screen faced the supervisors. She asked them to look at her home and her children’s faces and think about what her kids would inherit if further regulations devalued her family’s property.

A Woodacre resident ticked off the current restrictions on county property. “I don’t think we need another ordinance,” she said. “It’s a little redundant. What we do need is community education. We need a big carrot, like a green-star rating.”

Incentives were a recurring theme, and many speakers expressed anger over the ordinance’s perceived punitive nature. 

The proposed ordinance suggests a $750 fee for a tier one permit, which includes more common projects like adding a patio, pool or studio within a property’s stream conservation area, or SCA—at least 100 feet from a stream’s bank or 50 feet from riparian vegetation. 

Larger, less common projects would fall under tier two permits, which would cost $2,835 and require public notice and possibly a hearing. A tier two initial study would also involve a $5,000 partially refundable deposit.

A man representing the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group said passing the ordinance with added incentives could make it succeed. “Provide some carrots,” he said. “Waive the fees, not the process. Reward those who do the right thing.”

He said establishing a “streamside compliant” designation could raise property values and mitigate fears over SCA requirements appearing burdensome.

Perceptions that the streamside ordinance would be a property “takings” kept coming up, too. A Mill Valley man cited a Supreme Court case that gave homeowners the right to resist the “taking” of their property. If supervisors passed the ordinance, he said, “I would say that you are opening up your door for a lot of lawsuits. I encourage everyone to organize, call up the Institute of Justice, and sue, sue, sue.”

District Two Supervisor Katie Rice said she supported the ordinance’s efforts to protect the watershed, but the rules might get ducked if they are too stringent or dense. “If there is a perception on the part of the public that the process is too onerous and costly, then they will not come to us,” she said.

However, Ms. Rice told the Community Development Agency, tasked with incorporating the Countywide Plan’s specific CSA dictates into the ordinance, “I do think you’ve done a yeoman’s job with what you were given.”

District Four Supervisor Steve Kinsey said the Countywide Plan “has been far too prescriptive and far too specific” regarding what policies the county must implement to protect streams. “There has been a tremendous amount of smoke that has been generated by the highly litigious nature of this issue,” he said of SPAWN’s lawsuit over the ordinance, which has exceeded the Countywide Plan’s four-year deadline to be implemented. 

In the ensuing contention over property rights, we’ve created adversaries when we should have created allies, Mr. Kinsey said.

Board President Judy Arnold concluded the four-hour meeting by appointing Mr. Kinsey and District Three Supervisor Kate Sears to a sub-committee with Community Development Agency staff. Mr. Kinsey said the process would probably take four weeks.

The committee will decide whether to modify the ordinance’s permit fees and clarify their application, add compliance incentives or perhaps even revisit the Countywide Plan’s CSA specifications. 

They may also temporarily reprieve a moratorium that prevents construction in San Geronimo Valley until the ordinance is settled.

Homeowners issued happy thanks to the board at the meeting’s end. A few paused to talk with county planner Suzanne Thorsen. “I don’t take it personally,” she told them. “We’ll keep working.”

On the other side of the aisle, SPAWN was also optimistic. Managing director Andy Harris called the ordinance as-is a noble effort by county staff that was too weak on fish protections, too harsh on homeowners and “almost completely lacking scientific basis.”

“At the end of the day, but for very different reasons, almost everyone came to the same conclusion—reject this version of the ordinance,” he said.