Under attack, commission defends coastal program

05/15/2014

Environmental groups are lambasting proposed changes to Marin’s Local Coastal Program outlined this month by California Coastal Commission staff. The Sierra Club and the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin claim that the plan, which will regulate development in the county’s coastal zone for the foreseeable future, represents a drastic shift from current land-use policies and could spark a rash of development on agriculturally zoned parcels. 

In response, commission staff published a report on Wednesday defusing many of those claims, and county planners accused critics of distorting the proposal by using a unit of measurement—square feet—that exaggerates the potential for development. 

The changes in regulations on agricultural lands are meant to strengthen the ability of farmers and ranchers to maintain their operations by making it easier to build an additional home for family members and housing for workers. (The coastal commission is holding a hearing on the plan on today.)

The Sierra Club’s alert, sent last week, claims the new L.C.P. would allow “over 1 million square feet” of residential and commercial development on agriculturally zoned land. It says this development could take place “by right,” since permits for a farmhouse and one intergenerational home—what they call “bonus” housing—could not be appealed to the commission. Nor could up to 5,000 square feet of processing facilities for products made on-site, or up to 500 square feet for sales. According to the alert, that “goes way too far.” 

“Without the public’s right to participate in public hearings and to appeal permits for the siting, design, and location of over 1 million square feet of new development there is no chance that Marin’s stunning coastal zone will be protected,” the Sierra Club wrote.

The current L.C.P. allows one residence per legal lot as a conditional use—meaning it can be appealed to the commission. But Planning Commissioner Wade Holland, who represents West Marin, noted that there is no current cap on how large a residence can be, making the new plan more restrictive. 

To Mr. Holland, measuring in square feet makes the development potential appear extreme; a million square feet amounts to less than a tenth of one percent of agriculturally zoned land in Marin’s coastal zone. 

In its letter responding to the commission’s staff report, the EAC called the proposed amount of residential development unacceptable, and alleged that the L.C.P. changes the definition of a parcel from all contiguous legal lots owned by the same person to each assessor’s parcel. 

The commission responded this week that the group was misreading the section; in fact, all contiguous lots will still be considered a single parcel subject to a 7,000 square-foot cap for residential development. (They did, however, clarify the L.C.P.’s language to make this explicit.)

The county also clarified that, given existing restrictions, such as conservation easements, the maximum number of intergenerational homes possible in the coastal zone is 27. In addition, of the 193 parcels in the agricultural zone, 83 have not yet been developed to their residential capacity.  

Commission staff also wrote that the proposed L.C.P. “includes clear and certain criteria that must be adhered to in order for development to be allowed. These criteria… have been refined [from the existing L.C.P.] to be more protective of coastal resources.” Furthermore, the report says, “there is little indication that farmers might want to pursue such development schemes.”

According to county planning manager Jack Liebster, the new plan would tighten protections for natural resources and more strictly regulate how development is sited on agricultural lands (through clustering requirements and the requirement that the farm’s owner or operator live in the first farmhouse).

As far as allowing residential development “by right”—phrasing the commission argues is inaccurate—all projects must still adhere to the L.C.P. Although they are not appealable to the commission, they are are appealable to Marin County’s Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. The language of the proposed L.C.P. stipulates that 7,000 square feet is a maximum allowance, not “a mandatory entitlement or guaranteed right to development.”

Mr. Liebster said the allowance of multiple homes on ranches and dairies is meant to ensure that multiple generations can operate farms, so parents can pass down the farm to children without having to leave the land. 

The commission argues that allowing more than one house as a principal permitted use will ease pressures to divide agricultural property and keep parcels large enough to remain agriculturally viable.

The 7,000 square-foot cap on cumulative development, Mr. Liebster said, would actually prevent the “showboat” houses the E.A.C. fears because it would allow two or three reasonably sized homes. “Few bona fides ranches want big houses. They just want to do their ranching, their farming,” he said. 

At least one Sierra Club member expressed concerns about last week’s blast. David Haskell, the chair of the Sierra Club’s Bay Chapter Zero Waste Committee, posted an open letter on Facebook stating that the language of a million square feet “does not contribute to rational discussion,” and that it amounted to about 22 acres. Marin’s coastal zone contains over 30,000 acres zoned for agricultural use.