After struggling for decades to obtain the necessary permits to legally operate Lawson’s Landing, the owners of the fourth-generation family business hit yet another roadblock last week. In a 8:4 vote on Wednesday, the California Coastal Commission shot down the Dillon Beach campground’s proposal to amend its coastal development permit, which would have allowed an expansion of guest facilities and the construction of an emergency center and a wastewater management system.
The vote, which went against the recommendation of the commission’s staff, aligned with commentary from a handful of national environmental organizations and the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, which has led a hard-driven campaign throughout the permitting process in favor of less development and stronger environmental protections.
Many of the 960 acres of Lawson’s Landing, which provides R.V. and tent camping, day parking, boating facilities and more at the scenic mouth of Tomales Bay, fall within an environmentally sensitive habitat area, called ESHA.
The campground’s current coastal development permit, awarded in 2011, required phasing out some 200 residential trailers as it sought to balance two key mandates of the Coastal Act: protecting sensitive habitat and providing low-cost access to the coastline.
The permit came with the expectation that the campground’s primary owners, cousins Willy Vogler and Mike Lawson, would return with a proposed amendment that would hammer out a few remaining details. These included plans for a new wastewater system and a guest center that would help the campground meet the commission’s goals for public access through new storage facilities, an emergency service center and a second campground store.
Though the owners worked on the proposal with coastal commission staff, the E.A.C., the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and numerous scientific consultants since 2011, the majority of the 12 coastal commissioners were unimpressed by the result last Wednesday.
In particular, the proposed location of the guest center and wastewater treatment plant encroached on an ESHA—a necessity, Lawson’s advocates said, based on new site-specific scientific information and the campground’s mandate to provide low-cost public access.
The commission’s staff report explained that the placement of the wastewater system and guest center was best suited within “area six” on the property, which currently has a mix of undeveloped land, employee houses, utility sheds, a road and a parking area.
In 2011, the commission determined that the undeveloped parts of area six constituted an ESHA due to the proximity of coastal dune scrub and a breeding pond and to their potential as a migration corridor for California red-legged frogs.
Though the commission had been clear that any future development would have to be restricted to legally developed areas, commission staff concluded that parts of the wastewater system and guest center would have to encroach on ESHA.
The staff report stated that after incorporating input from the water quality control board, the latest sea-level rise and hazards projections and other site-based information, they were unable to find any other suitable locations that would not impede upon existing operations.
Regarding the wastewater system, staff explained that new information had come to light that showed that area six would be the best location based on a number of considerations, including soil permeability, depth to groundwater, proximity to staff who would be in charge of managing the system, reduced distance required to pump untreated wastewater and minimal energy consumption.
The staff report also stated that locating the facilities in other portions of the campground “would significantly displace lower cost visitor-serving accommodations (mainly campsites, tent sites, and day use parking).” And, the capacity of the wastewater system would be limited, “impacting important peak low-cost recreational use periods, such as holiday weekends in November, December and January as well as the opening of crabbing season.”
The report underscored that the campsite buildout potential for Lawson’s Landing is already far less than what was estimated in the original permit approval, with only 350 outlined in the recent amendment versus the 650 conditionally approved in 2011.
That’s also far fewer than the 1,000 campsites and 233 residential trailer sites at the landing during its peak.
The staff report went so far as to say that impacts on coastal resources from not constructing the amended project would be more significant than the amended project’s potential adverse effects to ESHA. Specifically, denying the project would “interfere with the use and operation of existing and approved lower cost, visitor-serving recreational facilities, result in reduced visitor-serving facility enhancements, worsen traffic congestion and associated adverse impacts on public access, and prevent adequate wastewater treatment capacity for peak recreational wintertime demands.”
The report concluded that the proposed amendment is simply “a further refinement and improvement” to the original conflict resolution determination in 2011 “to better provide for lower cost visitor-serving uses in a manner which is on balance most protective of coastal resources.”
In exchange for new impacts, the applicants would undertake additional habitat restoration and preservation.
Many at the hearing on Wednesday, which took place in Bodega Bay, spoke in strong support of the proposal, including engineers, environmental planners, biologists and attorneys hired by the owners. They highlighted the extensive collaborative planning process they undertook with the commission.
In written comments to the commission, an environmental scientist from state Fish and Wildlife described a recent site visit. “It is my personal belief, based on the scientific information available, that the implementation of a primarily belowground wastewater treatment system in area six (which is already highly developed) would not substantially negatively impact California red-legged frog migration routes,” he said.
He added that there was “potential for improved habitat value” if the guest center is designed and constructed in a way that “removes historic disturbance and promotes native revegetation.”
A handful of residents from West Marin also spoke in favor of Lawson’s Landing and the services it provides. One recounted the tremendous response from the campground during the recent North Bay fires, when the owners offered free campsites to hundreds of evacuees.
Ted Melden, the operations manager for the Dillon Beach Emergency Response Team, said the proposed emergency response center would fill a necessary gap in the area, as “there is no facility out there right now for emergency management to convene and to perform life-saving duties.”
Just one resident, Bonnie Smetts, representing the Concerned Citizens of Dillon Beach, expressed disapproval for the proposal. She said that over the years, the campground’s popularity has generated traffic problems exacerbated by large R.V.s and trucks pulling trailers. She was concerned that there was no discussion about using the defunct Sand Haul Road as a second way to access Lawson’s.
“We had other expectations when the [permit] was approved in 2011,” she said. “When we left that hearing, we thought that we knew [that]... Sand Hall Road would be considered as an additional access.”
Ms. Smetts was frustrated with the fact that the wastewater system, a necessary improvement, and the development of additional facilities were lumped together in one proposal.
The E.A.C. shared that concern. “While a wastewater system is mandatory for this site, a new office or retail complex is not,” Catherine Caufield, a former executive director of the E.A.C. who has been particularly active on this case for the past two decades, said. “The existing retail, office and repair facilities have supported levels of occupancy at Lawson’s Landing for decades.”
Ms. Caufield recalled the 2011 decision, when the commission adopted a special condition that explicitly limited all development in the ESHA in areas five through eight to agriculture and improvements to a nearby defunct road.
“To undo this now would unbalance the [coastal development permit] and undermine the integrity of the commission and the [permits] you issue,” Ms. Caufield said.
Representatives from the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and Audubon Canyon Ranch also spoke against the amendment, highlighting concerns about ESHA encroachment.
Commissioners, too, were unwilling to compromise. “Stay out of ESHA. At issue here is that we want you to stay out of ESHA, period,” the commission’s chair, Dayna Bochco, directed the staff after the vote.
After the hearing, the applicant’s project manager, Tom Flynn, expressed surprise that the proposal was dismissed, especially given the extent of collaboration with commission staff and the many scientists hired by Lawson’s.
Mr. Flynn explained that the small section of ESHA proposed for the wastewater treatment system was not pristine land; it hosted a corral for cattle in the past and is heavily impacted by an invasive grass. There was therefore an opportunity for restoration, he said.
“The issues now in area six are not about science,” Mr. Flynn said. He added that two of the consulting scientists E.A.C. recommended to the campground’s review panel supported and helped refine the proposal. In addition, Ms. Caufield abruptly and without notice left the more than five-year collaborative process when they “were close to a mutual solution,” he said.
The campground’s consultants had to work out the remaining details of the proposal with commission staff.
Mr. Vogler said he hoped to come back with a new proposal in the next four to six months. The wastewater system and the guest center will likely still take place in some of area six, though not in ESHA, he said.
Part of the wastewater system will likely be built under an existing road, a plan the water quality control board wouldn’t approve before all other options were explored. The extent of the new development will likely be reduced, too.
“I should be disappointed, but it is honestly just par for the course,” Mr. Vogler said. “My grandfather was the one who started the campground and he was approached in 1966 by the state to get permits. We’ve been trying to do it ever since. Yes… A lot of time!”
The Lawson family originally bought the land for ranching in 1929. Though they still have around 50 cattle, the property has been primarily used for a campground since the 1950s. Over the past 30 years, the owners have submitted nearly a dozen permitting plans that were met with regular requests for further environmental studies.
In 1991, two state agencies sent ultimatums that camping would have to cease if no agreement could be reached. The state eventually began issuing temporary operating permits, allowing for 1,000 campsites and 233 permanent trailers. A county-negotiated master plan was finally reached in 2008 that reduced the number of campsites and trailers, but the E.A.C. and other environmental groups appealed the plan to the coastal commission.
In 2011, the commission brought the campsites down to 650 and required all the permanent trailers to be phased out. Last July, the last of the residents left, and Mr. Vogler said the loss of steady income from permanent trailers led to an increase in campsite rates from around $33 per night to an average of $44.
Since then, Lawson’s has been working to come into compliance with the terms of its coastal permit, with the participation of a scientific review panel.
According to panel members the Light contacted back in 2016, the delays since then have stemmed from a combination of the commission’s slow approval process, personal hindrances, a clash of opinion among members and the campground’s pending deal to sell 465 acres as a conservation easement to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
That $5 million deal, intended in part to shore up Lawson’s finances during the transition period, closed earlier this year, though Mr. Vogler said he and Mr. Lawson together own just 35 percent of the business and the funds were split among family members.
Mr. Vogler estimates that they have spent around $100,000 per year on permitting expenses. Since his grandfather was at the helm, the total tab is in the millions, he said.
“We like to joke that we are a money processing machine: money comes in and then it goes right back out again. If we could actually be building something with this machine, it would be incredible,” he said.