Valley residents say why they quit SPAWN

11/21/2012

Laura Szawarzenski saw her involvement with a local environmental group as a way to help safeguard wildlife in the patchwork of waterways that make up the Lagunitas Creek watershed.

But after years of participating in biological studies with the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN), her views grew dim. The group was transferring federally endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout from overcrowded parts of streams to less populated areas in what Ms. Szawarnzenski saw as interference in a habitat that has historically remained intact.

“I think that Mother Nature knows what’s really best,” Ms. Szawarzenski, a Lagunitas resident who stopped working as a volunteer with the group several years ago, said.

She has since helped start an opposition group in San Geronimo Valley to try to loosen the legal grip SPAWN has tightened around county officials and homeowners by filing lawsuits to prevent building near waterways. “I feel the people in the valley need to be a part of the conversation,” Ms. Szawarzenski said.

The San Geronimo Valley Stewards is a grassroots group whose members have grown to more than 300 homeowners, many of whom left SPAWN and are now seeking relief from certain building restrictions that they believe are unnecessary.  

Lawsuits filed against Marin County, which has sunk more than $17 million into watershed restoration, have prompted the Marin Superior Court in the past several years to order two bans on building, one of which is still in place.

The full effect of those restrictions are felt more acutely in the valley, where nearly 75 percent of homes are within a zoning district that prohibits all building and home repairs within 100 feet of waterways and within 50 feet of riparian vegetation.

County planners are now revising a stream conservation ordinance as part of its Countywide Plan that drew a lawsuit in 2007 by SPAWN, which argued the county did not take adequate environmental precautions.

Planners are also considering reducing the ban on building to within 35 feet of waterways.

Still, some residents complain of an “environment of fear” that has exacerbated the real estate market in the valley, where nearly 60 percent of properties are in financial distress—in contrast to the 26 percent across Marin.

More than half of the 2,000 homes within the valley—many of which were built near ephemeral streams, whose water levels rise only after a heavy rainfall—are limited in what is allowable for new construction and repairs.

“It is impossible to do the right thing out here when it comes to doing permits with the creek,” said Steve Tognini, a former member of SPAWN who joined the stewards after becoming disenchanted with the group’s efforts to preserve waterways, some of which SPAWN describes as “extinction vortexes.”

Part of those efforts involve physically moving fish from one place to another in hopes of spreading out populations across a watershed that some experts say is known for scarce food sources.

They justify their efforts with references to their own studies, which Mr. Tognini said often “border of scientific fraud” and lack wide support from the scientific community.     

“If you’re dealing with people who are advocating, which is SPAWN, they’re going to tell you everything,” he said.

The group has partnered with the National Park Service and Marin Municipal Water District in surveys of the watershed and life cycles of fish, including coho.

Gregory Andrew, fishery program manager for the water district, sees those surveys as “informative and helpful to everybody involved with trying to manage and protect the salmon of Lagunitas Creek.”

“It’s certainly much better to have information than not,” he said, noting that several homeowners in the valley have agreed to let the district conduct surveys on their properties.

Nonetheless, Mike Snyder, a Lagunitas resident, sees SPAWN’s efforts as more of a “scam to generate volunteers and money than to help the salmon.”

Mr. Snyder, a cabinet maker, joined the stewards about six years ago after disagreeing with the group’s leaders, whom he believed were not basing their approach on valid research.

His dissent drew animosity from executive director Todd Steiner. Mr. Snyder now casts SPAWN as “more like a religion than a biological group.”

“I was told, ‘If you don’t like what we’re doing, then leave,’” Mr. Snyder said. “So I did.”

Mr. Steiner, whom opponents accuse of trying to malign the efforts of homeowners seeking relief from building restrictions, has virtually “shot himself in the foot with relations in the valley” by not responding to requests from homeowner to explain certain studies, Mr. Tognini said.

Mr. Steiner was unavailable for comment.

The stewards will determine whether to ratchet up pressure on SPAWN and county officials after estimates of fish populations are released by the water district in early spring.