Defending the future of our coastline

05/23/2013

My wife and I recently completed a coastal permitting process in Marshall, just south of the Marconi Center. We have lived in Point Reyes for the last 12 years, and before that in Lagunitas and Forest Knolls. West Marin has been home since 1988; during our time here we’ve watched one home and development after another along the east shore of Tomales Bay go down in flames over an environmental or viewshed issue, or both. 

When we decided to try to purchase the land in Marshall we knew the scrutiny would be high, and it should be high. Property rights are not the same everywhere. They are managed differently 5,000 feet east of our land, in the adjacent valley. The bay side of the ridge falls into the coastal zone, and landowners must accept that. 

Before we began thinking of what we wanted to do with our 149 acres we obtained copies of other projects reviewed by the California Coastal Commission (CCC) along the east shore. These staff reports would be my constant companions over the next six months. They represented a kind of Rosetta Stone for interpreting the occasionally mutually-exclusive priorities embedded in the Marin County Local Coastal Program (LCP). 

Central to my study was a proposal on the parcel immediately south of ours, a project resolutely rejected by the CCC in a de novo hearing process. Commission staff had made directive statements regarding the project and, by the agreed-upon guidelines of the LCP, they were correct. 

It confirmed something I’d always suspected: that projects come crashing down because folks, cherishing a longstanding dream, tried to back their way in to the LCP, hoping that no one would notice. Someone always notices. 

When the CCC staff undertake their thorough review, all the buried flaws are exposed. As the bonfire begins it is the staff who are called arbitrary and capricious, when the real failure resides in the application. 

After my biologist and I completed an initial riparian map of our land, we began to recognize the constraints. We saw which portions of the property would be protected, which could not support a road, which were best suited to grazing and which provide habitat for turtles and frogs. Once the layers of wetland, blue-line stream and riparian habitat were outlined and laid onto the map, what remained was the only place where we could even consider building. It was a process of elimination involving very little choice. 

And this is the way one must approach development in the coastal zone, where environmental concerns trump all others—even agriculture. Here we stumbled upon the single largest deception in the implementation of every LCP from Crescent City to Chula Vista.

Agriculture is consecrated as the soul of the coastal zone. It is supposed to be its steward, its protector, its productive economic use, its past and its entitled future. But exactly which agriculture are we talking about? If animal grazing, then what about runoff? If row crops, then what about native grass stands? Or are we talking about finished farm products, such as cheese, oysters, fruit, nuts or brandy? 

The first two agricultural models are economically unfeasible on parcels smaller than six or seven hundred acres and will always result in some sort of runoff. Only the latter model works on smaller parcels, and to pretend otherwise is as unbecoming as the property owner who plants a few hundred olive trees and then forgets about them. 

Pinched between the governing LCP, environmental groups and not-in-my-backyard neighbors, the CCC staff might well have wound up concluding: “You must look like a farmer but you cannot be one.” But they would not allow the LCP to be bullied in that way.

I work with a lot of disciplined thinkers, and in my view the CCC staff are at the top of the pyramid. Some commissioners, however, don’t seem bound by any rigor of thought. Of course this isn’t true of all of them, but a little laziness can do a lot of harm. 

On April 11 our project, which proposed sheep grazing, vegetable row crops, grape production and a brandy distillery, went before the commission. The CCC legal counsel, staff, staff report writer and chief biologist, along with commissioners Steve Kinsey, Mary Shallenberger and Charles Lester, were admirably clear-eyed. Other commissioners wished to be arbitrary and capricious, seeking to deeply regulate, with neither statutory authority nor institutional capability, the day-to-day operations of my farm. They would have set a precedent for a requirement that each family farm on coastal land return every few years for permission to live as they have always lived. 

The majority of the commission spoke to contain this reckless approach. And fortunately for us, reasoned thinking
prevailed. 

My wife and I don’t really have any personal opinions about the nuances of land use in the coastal zone. We are practical people and we know we must adhere to the rules. The clear guidelines of the LCP became our rules. But in the end we believe there is only one reason our project was approved: it was correctly proposed with respect to the rules as they are laid out in the LCP. 

We pitted the more arbitrary commissioners against their own prejudices, with the analytical support of the CCC staff. In order to vote against our project, the commissioners would have been forced to vote against a resolute and definitive 650-page staff report, creating a rebuke that only two commissioners could have rationalized.

Even so, this pair of commissioners was joined by the increasingly eccentric Environmental Action Committee, the oddly dysfunctional Marin Chapter of the Sierra Club and my two self-entitled residential neighbors, all of whom wished to make up new rules to facilitate the outcome they desired.

A farm, just like my brewing company, is a business. The arbitrary and capricious public-entitled process to which the CCC risks subjecting agricultural operations could make this tradition—held up as central to coastal protection in the Coastal Act itself—impossible. What, then, would coastal zone land be used for? Malibu-style mini-ranchettes? Disney-like operations that are agricultural in appearance only? 

If agriculture is to be the front line of defense against commercial coastal development, the LCP must more intimately embrace all of its forms, without prejudice. Then the analyses performed by CCC staff can cite specific protective provisions in defense of agriculture and compel activist commissioners to hold their intellectual reasoning to the highest standards. 

This is why a revision, or at least an aggressive clarification, of our LCP is necessary if the future is going to look anything like the past. Most importantly, it is only fair to the individuals who engage the system that the rules be equitable and transparent.