County plods through coastal plan

12/13/2012

County supervisors working to update development regulations in coastal towns across West Marin offered responses Tuesday to a series of staff revisions to a management program that has remained unchanged for nearly three decades.

The proposed amendments to the Local Coastal Program, a series of guidelines adopted by the county in the early 1980’s under the California Coastal Act, are meant to bring clarity to outdated policies no longer addressing certain environmental and resource issues.

Among the proposals presented during the public hearing on Tuesday by the Community Development Agency (CDA) staff was a request for supervisors’ support for an amendment that would encourage scientific studies measuring rising sea levels and identifying the areas most susceptible to flooding and
erosion.

Such studies likely would help shape future zoning and development policies meant to protect the most vulnerable communities within the coastal zone, an area usually within 1,000 yards of an average high tide.

Staff also recommended policies meant to restrict the number of private properties that double as vacation rentals in order to “meet local needs, recognize infrastructure constraints and protect community character.”

The county population has remained stable in the past 20 years, thought it has seen an increase in vacation-rental properties that often house visitors during weekend sojourns and extended stays.

Houses doubling as vacation homes have resulted in a “significant” number of properties that are evading certain occupancy taxes, assistant planner Alisa Stevenson said.

The highest concentration is in Stinson Beach, where about 200 private homes and other properties are rented out to visitors. Some locals attribute this shift to rising septic system taxes and a growing amount of traffic, Stinson Beach resident Terry Bryant said during a public comment period.

But restrictions limiting rental properties might raise concern among some business owners in towns whose economies rely heavily on tourism, Supervisor Steve Kinsey said. He suggested officials develop policies that would give the county leeway to consider developing low-income housing in costal towns like Stinson Beach, where he said service workers struggle to find alternative living arrangements.

Staff with the CDA also proposed policies that would tightly regulate development for wind energy in the county, where wind turbines currently are outlawed.

Under the proposed policy, the size and concentration of wind turbines would vary by location. Policies do not apply to properties under federal control.

Turbines west of Highway One would not be allowed to exceed 40 feet; systems east of Highway One, where energy is in greater demand, would not be allowed to exceed 200 feet. In addition, turbines mounted on rooftops, which the county would permit on the majority of properties under its jurisdiction, would not be allowed to exceed 10 feet above the structure.

The prospect of wind turbines has drawn consternation among several environmental groups, which cast them as a form of “industrialization” that would affect wildlife and blemish the allure of the western part of the county.

“If we give in on our standards, [West Marin] is not going to be as beautiful and as valuable as it is,” Barbara Salzman, president of the Marin Audubon Society, said. Wind systems in Solano County, she noted, have reportedly killed several birds and bats.

Wind energy proponents, meanwhile, view the resource as a feasible and more environmentally friendly alternative to other forms of energy like fossil fuel and coal production. They argue against tight restrictions limiting the height of turbines, as taller wind turbines operate with less wind resistance, converting energy at lower costs.

Mike Bergey, president of Bergey Windpower Company, which has utilities in across the country, said by phone during the meeting that “severe, unprecedented and unjustified red tape” will discourage landowners from seeking wind energy.

Proposed regulations include a list of environmental and other impact studies that exceed standards of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that are seen by municipalities as a blueprint for wind energy development.

“I don’t think that an ordinance that creates a massive amount of paperwork… is a good ordinance to put in place,” said Justin Kudo, a former planning commissioner for the city of Davis who now works as an account manager at Marin Clean Energy.

That sentiment was echoed by Mr. Kinsey, who views the prospect of developing wind energy in the county as a “fiction” that will not materialize without clear guidelines and attainable standards.

Supervisors advised the staff to refine policies—including gathering more data about environmental impact of wind energy—before late February, when the county will decide whether to send the amendments to the California Coastal Commission.