The plan that will guide agriculture, development, the environment and more in Marin County’s coastal zone reached a milestone on Tuesday when the Board of Supervisors adopted it. Supervisors rejected pleas from the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin and the Marin Conservation League to delay the vote on the basis of concerns over environmental protections and ongoing disagreement between the county and California Coastal Commission staff.
Although the vote was a key step, the process of updating the Local Coastal Program is far from over. “This is a triathlon, and we’re just climbing out of the water,” Supervisor Steve Kinsey said. Mr. Kinsey expressed his wish that the recent collaboration between county and commission staffs will reduce contention in the next phase of review.
“I think what we are trying to show is a new way for the coastal commission as an agency to address local coastal programs, and there’s a real high interest on the part of the commission and its executive director to have Marin County’s LCP [amendments] be a model going forward,” he said.
County staff will now compile an official package to submit to the commission. They will also continue discussions with commission staff, both to ensure that all necessary documentation has been provided and, if additional differences can be resolved before submittal, the county could add a supplement to the amendments.
Only once the commission receives the package and agrees that it needs no more information will hearings begin. “This is a long process,” said Jack Liebster, principal planner at the Community Development Agency.
Supervisors made a few final decisions on Tuesday in what at times felt like lexical gymnastics.
The word “substantial,” as it relates to the obstruction of scenic coastal views from public access points, drove one discussion. Although county staff proposed adding the qualifier to prevent the possibility that minor projects like mailboxes would be construed as interfering with an oceanic panorama, giving the board additional discretion, supervisors felt the word was vague and confusing and added that the view itself already had to be considered “significant.”
“You got to be protective of the coastal views, not development,” Muir Beach resident Richard Kohn said during public comment.
Supervisors ultimately decided not to add the word but change the sentence itself to make it more proactive to ensure view protections.
Another discussion revolved around requirements that farmers and ranchers site new development around existing development in order to minimize environmental impacts and keep more land open for agriculture. Farmers and ranchers have opposed the idea, preferring to use the term “grouping” for the practice, while commission staff prefers “clustering.” Ultimately the county tried to satisfy everyone by writing that development should be “clustered in a group or groups.”
Mr. Liebster said he did not really know what the difference was, but added, “That’s the kind of stuff we spend hours on.” It was later decided that more clarification would be added regarding exactly what a cluster of groups means.
The requirement for a coastal permit for agricultural operations on lands that have been out of use for over 10 years also spurred some debate. Nicola Spaletta said at the meeting that a historical use provision should be included. “Ten years is just cutting us all off,” she said. In a letter submitted a few days ago, the Marin Audubon Society argued the opposite, that the limit should be reduced to five years.
The board agreed to keep the 10-year limit but also agreed to look at what laws may already be on the books to serve as guidance.
Supervisors also changed the wording in a policy addressing short-term vacation rentals from “consider regulating” their use to simply regulating their use. The framework for such regulations would come further down the line, though the LCP update stipulates that input will be solicited from community groups.
But even as tweaks and clarifications were agreed upon, the LCP amendments were approved despite ongoing and compelling points of dissension.
The EAC’s executive director Amy Trainer urged supervisors not to approve the amendments, in large part due to disagreement between the county and commission staffs over the very definition of agriculture. “The fundamental basis of the agricultural section is not acceptable to the coastal commission,” she said in reference to a July 30 letter from coastal planner Kevin Kahn to the county.
In that letter, Mr. Kahn wrote, “We continue to believe that the LCP needs to be structured around a more traditional definition of agriculture that is tied to the working of the land itself… so that standards and criteria can be made clearer in terms of allowing, siting and designing other uses and development that might be appropriate on agricultural lands (e.g. farmhouses, farmworker housing, intergenerational housing, agricultural processing structures, etc.). There are many sub-issues related to agricultural protection, but many of our remaining concerns stem from the Update’s proposed definition of agriculture.”
But the county is so far holding firm on expanding that definition. “I do have a concern of what that letter means but I won’t go into it here,” Mr. Liebster said at the meeting, but added, “It is still our feeling that agriculture is not limited to planting crops and planting things in the ground and harvesting. Other things are legitimately part of process that should be recognized as part of that use.”
Farmers can’t farm, the logic goes, if they have nowhere to live and no way to ensure the viability of their operations, which can include on-site processing, educational tours, worker housing and intergenerational housing.
Ms. Trainer also reiterated past concerns over what her group says is a lack of background information in the LCP amendments, the amount of allowable grading, or moving of earth—150 cubic yards—without a permit, and wetland and stream buffers, which the EAC says are too lenient.
Although those kinds of buffers were not discussed in the most recent county staff report, from her own conversations with coastal commission staff, Ms. Trainer said, “Buffer adjustments are not a done deal.”
Mr. Liebster told the Light earlier this month that flexibility for buffers is a boon to environmental protection because while some permits may require a smaller buffer, some may require more, depending on the potential impacts.