Countywide Plan revision would ease Valley homeowner’s hardships

08/22/2013

A contentious ordinance to regulate streamside development that has sparked fervent opposition in the San Geronimo Valley may soon be implemented on an interim basis while supervisors amend the Countywide Plan to create more flexibility for homeowners. That’s what county staffers, working with a subcommittee that includes Supervisor Steve Kinsey, suggested on Tuesday, though it could be months before the board makes a decision on its path forward.

The stream conservation area—believed by environmentalists to be critical for the restoration of decimated fish populations—is mandated by the CWP but has stirred ire among homeowners who, at past meetings, claimed the ordinance too severely restricts development on their properties. 

A court-imposed moratorium on development in the valley, the result of a lawsuit undertaken by the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network after the county failed to update county code, will only be lifted with the adoption of an ordinance. 

Environmental groups and others who opposed amending the CWP, which they say was the result of years of public input, questioned the board’s loyalty to the environment.

Roughly 10 people attended the supervisor’s meeting on Tuesday to speak in opposition to the new plan.

“You are being asked to amend the Countywide Plan…in a way that will promote development,” said Jeff Miller, a West Marin resident and conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. The board, he went on, was doing “favors for very strident and vocal and misinformed property owners that would allow destruction of salmon habitat.” He also singled out Supervisor Kinsey, claiming he didn’t have a stellar record on salmon protection.

The executive director of SPAWN, Todd Steiner, also urged reconsideration of the staff recommendation. “Every environmental group is now saying, ‘Don’t change the Countywide Plan,’” he said. “You are fiddling while Rome is burning.”

There were additional concerns that limiting the interim plan to the valley left other watersheds at risk for another two years. 

Supporters of amending the CWP, including many area homeowners, said the board should actively engage residents in the revision process. 

A member of a homeowner advocacy group the San Geronimo Valley Stewards, Peggy Sheneman, sent a letter to the county last month asking for a series of working groups that would include representatives from both sides of the debate to offer suggestions and input on the amendments.

Valley residents also continued to voice criticisms about SPAWN. Woodacre resident and local business owner Jeff Harriman commented on the presence of the nonprofit’s staff on his property. “Right now, I feel like there’s a trail though my property,” he said. “I would like it to stop.” 

Supervisor Kinsey, who was on the board subcommittee that worked with county staffers this summer on the framework, responded to the dismay expressed by environmentalists, explaining that amendments are rare but sometimes imperative. “We have been advised by counsel that we continue to be at risk of ongoing litigation if we don’t take the time to clarify and be more precise.”

Supervisor Kathrin Sears, who was also on the subcommittee that worked on the framework, said any changes would be undertaken with “surgical” precision.

But supervisors questioned whether the interim ordinance should be limited to the San Geronimo Valley.

“It is unfair that one community, the San Geronimo Valley, is being held hostage while we work to find a solution for whole community,” Mr. Kinsey said, though he added he would not impede progress if the board ultimately decides to apply the interim ordinance only to the valley.

Supervisor Susan Adams said that applying the interim ordinance across Marin would help the county understand its impact, and costs.

The guiding principles and framework assembled by the Community Development Agency staffers and the board subcommittee, which would guide amendments to the CWP, include a directive to develop a “Headwaters Protection Zone” to protect ephemeral streams, which only flow in the near aftermath of storms. Planner Tom Lai, who pointed out that it is often difficult to distinguish genuine ephemerals from man-made ditches, said they might investigate if there is another way to protect ephemerals, which could mean they would be regulated separately from the SCA.

Subsidized fees are also meant to entice compliance. A $250 fee would pay for a tier one, or ministerial, permit, for minor development. Tier two permits for more significant development—such as major additions or new structures—would cost $2,500, along with a $5,000 deposit for an initial study. Because the fees do not cover the actual cost of processing, those rates could result in a loss to the county of $40,000 annually in flat fees, plus additional losses depending on how much work is undertaken for initial studies, costs that would be subsidized by the general fund.

Planners also say that the current draft map for streams in the San Geronimo Valley incorporated feedback from homeowners, who cited inaccuracies in past months, and also removes about 30 parcels from the SCA.

Supervisor Rice emphasized that the ordinance carries little weight if people do not comply with it. “If we have buy in, we’re more likely to get compliance. I think that’s the key,” she said, though she may reconsider her stance if the amendment process appears too pricey.

Supervisor Adams expressed concerns about opening up the CWP for revisions and impressed upon staffers to come back next month with a clear analysis of the costs.