County staff call for more flexibility in LCP

07/11/2013

A new county staff report on the program that will regulate development in Marin County’s Coastal Zone reveals some of the environmental, agricultural and procedural issues still being hammered out before a July 30 public meeting, when the Board of Supervisors could decide to send the plan to the California Coastal Commission for approval. 

The Local Coastal Program amendments, five years in the making, will affect development, agriculture and the environment from Dillon Beach to Muir Beach. They constitute the plan’s first overhaul since Marin’s LCP was created in 1981, and their authors must weigh a host of considerations—though balancing environmental concerns and the hardships of agricultural producers presents the primary struggle.

The staff report, released last week, notes that county and coastal commission staffs, which have met in-person four times since late March, are attempting to work collaboratively before the plan is officially submitted to the commission.

It’s a new effort on the part of the commission, and it has come after protracted processes in other counties. 

In San Mateo County, for instance, officials submitted amendments for their LCP at the end of 2006. When the commission finally approved the plan at the end of 2010, it had made 72 modifications. “They were significant changes,” said Steve Monowitz, deputy director of planning and building in San Mateo County. 

The county ended up accepting most, but not all, of the modifications. When officials resubmitted the plan, they gave the commission a choice: either accept the plan as is or San Mateo would revert to its old LCP. The commission approved the amendments in August 2012.

Agriculture

Although Marin County staff have brought commission staff somewhat closer to their views on agricultural development, schisms remain. 

“There are some things we still hope to convince commission staff about. Looking at how things really work and what has allowed this unique environment to continue is something that we ought to address,” Jack Liebster, principal planner for the Community Development Agency, which has taken the lead in updating the LCP, said.

Farmers also hope to gain ground. “My initial reaction is that it appears we still have more work to do,” said Sam Dolcini, president of the Marin County Farm Bureau. 

High on Mr. Dolcini’s list of key issues is housing for family members who may not actually work on the farm, called intergenerational housing. It’s a provision that the current LCP does not contain, Mr. Liebster said.

Commission staff originally suggested that only agricultural production itself should be a principal permitted use, or PPU, on agriculturally zoned lands. That designation refers to developments that receive county-issued coastal permits that are not appealable to the commission unless they also lie in the key strip of Coastal Zone land between the shoreline and the first public road.

The newest county report indicated that the commission has come around to the idea of allowing one farmhouse as well as one intergenerational housing unit as a PPU, as long as there were adequate restrictions, though commission staff have not decided whether that should be per parcel or per some other unit. 

Parcels in agriculturally zoned areas in Marin vary from 60 to over 800 acres, according to Mr. Liebster. And in the current draft of the LCP, such units are already limited to family members. 

County staff also believe that a second intergenerational home should be allowed as a conditional use, though altogether family housing development would not be able to surpass 7,000 square feet.

But Mr. Dolcini says ensuring flexibility for intergenerational housing is essential, and the farm bureau is arguing for one unit per 60 acres. That ratio reflects the county’s zoning limits for the smallest allowable agricultural parcel, though the county does not frequently subdivide to that size. 

“Housing is one of the critical points,” Mr. Dolcini said. “If you have a piece of property owned by six in the family, and three want to sell it, and three want to keep it—if those three could live on the ranch, it greatly increases the chance of that ranch staying in the family [rather than being sold for estate development or ‘McMansions’].”

The non-agricultural community, Mr. Dolcini continued, “doesn’t seem to have a grasp of the intergenerational equity challenges that ranchers face.”

Other issues over which the county and commission still disagree include whether worker housing should be appealable to the commission and how bed and breakfasts on farms should be regulated. 

If these uses were to become appealable, ranchers believe the consequences could hamstring operations and make profits more elusive. 

The commission also does not want any flexibility with so-called clustering requirements, which force development on ranches and farms into 5 percent of the land and clustered in “existing development nodes.” Those requirements, an attempt to limit environmental impacts by grouping development, prevent ranchers from making such decisions based on their specific needs and properties, Mr. Dolcini said.

Ongoing disagreement also remains over what constitutes a change in the intensity of land use, which requires a coastal permit. 

De minimis waivers

The staff report also discussed permit waivers for small-scale projects that would not result in environmental harm, known as de minimis waivers. Only the commission currently has the authority to issue them, but the county now wants to be able to do so too.

“It’s in anticipation of a trend of greater scrutiny of development that occurs, so it’s partly just to be in a position to respond in a reasonable way if questions are raised about whether a given development requires a permit or not,” Mr. Liebster said. He noted an instance in which the county Department of Public Works had to obtain a coastal permit to clean out a drainage ditch on the side of the road. “It was quite an effort,” Mr. Liebster said. 

The staff report noted that Humboldt County’s LCP allows for de minimis waivers for minor projects.

Examples of waivers that the commission itself has granted were for ramps to comply with the Americans for Disabilities Act and the installation of a park where a parking lot had been, Mr. Liebster said.

A potential compromise could result in the county having de minimis authority with the commission’s executive director maintaining the right to overrule specific cases.

Environmental protections

The staff report also expounded on some of the continuing points of debate in regard to environmentally sensitive habitat areas, which include streams, riparian vegetation, wetlands, and terrestrial areas that support protected habitats such as coastal dunes or riparian vegetation not associated with a waterway. 

The commission is seeking to broaden the categories of species and wildlife included in terrestrial protections by adding three more classifications. Those include Species of Special Concern, an administrative designation created by the Department of Fish and Wildlife that the county noted carries no legal status.

“It’s sort of the approach that the only thing that can protect the environment is a coastal permit, when we don’t necessarily think that’s true, especially with the demonstrated effort of [the University of California] Agricultural Extension and the farmers and ranchers who’ve already done an incredible amount of restoration of creeks and streams,” Mr. Liebster said. 

He added that there are other rules and regulatory bodies, such as the regional water quality control boards, that enforce environmental protections. 

The Environmental Action Committee of West Marin told the Light in an email that it had no comment on the LCP amendments at this time. 

In its most recent letter to the county, sent in April, the group stated its continuing concerns over environmental protections and agricultural development and said it prefers the current LCP over the amended draft.  

One of the specific issues raised by the EAC concerned stream buffers, which the group said are weakened by the draft amendments, along with environmental protections in general. 

The latest staff report didn’t discuss stream buffers, though Mr. Liebster defended the current provision. “The idea of one size fitting all…is not supported by science or good practice,” he said. He added that the LCP amendments provide for site assessments that could result in either a larger or smaller buffer, depending on potential impacts in that particular area. 

A January letter from the Marin Audubon Society, which also supports stringent buffer controls, stated that the currently proposed flexibility will result in most applicants obtaining the minimum buffer allowed.