County ends slaughter ban in code update

03/16/2017

The Board of Supervisors unanimously lifted a 14-year ban on commercial animal slaughter and expanded size limits for second units on residential properties in Marin. The changes to the development code were among a suite of others  approved on Tuesday.

Much of the three-hour hearing that preceded the supervisors’ vote, which followed a series of planning commission workshops and a planning commission hearing, was consumed by public comment on the animal slaughter proposal. 

Numerous people concerned about animal rights, the environment and property values pled with supervisors to keep the prohibition on commercial slaughter, which has been in place since 2003. But ranchers and agriculture advocates also came out to support the change, arguing that local slaughter is both more humane and in line with consumer demand that all elements of food production be as local as possible.

Supervisors largely approved the planning commission versions of the code updates, which will not affect the coastal zone at this time. 

But they made a few notable amendments. For instance, they expanded allowable rabbit slaughter from only mobile facilities to both mobile and small-scale facilities, despite public outcry from a group called SaveABunny, which stressed that rabbits are companions and pets.  

The focus was largely on slaughter, but changes were made on a range of issues, including code enforcement and rules governing campgrounds, master plans and design review, and more. The board also eliminated an owner occupancy requirement for property owners who rent out second units—a rule county staffers said was difficult to enforce—and scrapped a proposal to require use permits for farm tours in land zoned for both agricultural and residential use, a zoning district known as ARP. The board said that proposal could be revisited.

Some updates were mandatory. For instance, because of a recent state law, Marin is updating rules for second units, which are now called accessory dwelling units. Those units can now be up to 1,200 square feet, a substantial increase from the current limit of 750. 

And although the county has long allowed the installation of wet bars, the new code creates a section to encourage junior accessory dwelling units, or areas with a separate entrance and a wet bar.

Under the code amendments approved by supervisors, the county will allow two types of commercial slaughter facilities: mobile units, which can operate up to three times a week and 12 times a month on a given site, and small-scale facilities up to 5,000 square feet that harvest a maximum of 20,000 poultry or rabbits annually if they are raised on site. The latter is in line with a United States Department of Agriculture exemption that allows such facilities to slaughter without a U.S.D.A. inspector onsite, though the meat can only be sold directly to consumers. Per county rules, the facilities will only be allowed on lands zoned exclusively for agriculture; that excludes the ARP zone, the common zoning district in Nicasio.

The vast majority of Marin’s agricultural industry revolves around animals, largely dairy cows but also beef cattle. The value of all animal agriculture in the county, including both meat and livestock products, was about $95 million in 2015.

Dozens of opponents of the slaughter proposal spoke during public comment, citing concerns about impacts on the environment, property values, animal rights and quality of life, with one woman worried that the changes would “escalate animal agriculture.” A couple of people in East Marin said they would never move to West Marin if slaughter were allowed.

A man who said he was an economist, John Haberman, said it was clear that animal agriculture didn’t need help in Marin, given that revenues have grown substantially in recent years. He said ranching needed to be balanced with tourism and resident concerns, and wondered if the proposal needed environmental review under state law. “The bar for requiring this is quite low,” he said.

One woman also questioned the humanity of slaughtering animals on-site. “Do they hear the screams? Is that humane? ‘Am I next?’” she said.

A Mill Valley real estate agent with Sotheby’s International Realty, Cindy Shelton, said that lifting the ban would result in a “real estate nightmare” because it would have to be disclosed to buyers.

Rabbit advocates also spoke, urging supervisors to prohibit their slaughter under the logic that they are considered companions and pets. The executive director of SaveABunny, Marcy Schaaf, expressed frustration that her group was “lumped” with other activists, like vegans.

Numerous ranchers and agriculture advocates stressed the importance of allowing commercial slaughter. “It’s really important to have that option on the table,” said Loren Poncia, who ranches in Tomales.

Kelli Dunaj, who has run a ranch in Marshall since 2013, said it was “unfair and hypocritical” to bring up the “bogeyman like property values” to try to stop the proposal. Landscapes, she went on, are “not just eye candy,” but working agricultural fields. 

Rebecca Burgess, executive director of a group of farmers and artisans called Fibershed, said her group’s mission of sourcing local fiber like wool also means supporting growing animals like sheep for meat. “To develop a sustainable fiber system, we need a sustaining food system,” she said.

When public comment ended and the meeting turned back over to supervisors, some of their amendments, like allowing both accessory dwelling units and junior units, were easily agreed on. But they seemed on the fence about how to handle rabbit slaughter. Rabbit advocates had argued that there was little demand for rabbit meat, pointing to Whole Foods, which stopped selling it in early 2016.

But when the board asked David Lewis of the University of California Cooperative Extension, he estimated that Marin had between five to 10 rabbit meat producers and that “demand is higher” than supply. Supervisor Damon Connelly indicated that he would support banning rabbit slaughter. 

Supervisor Katie Rice, who said she did not eat rabbit meat, said she believed that supporting agriculture meant supporting a “farm to table” system. She also said that if supervisors truly believe that slaughter is more humane when done more locally, it seemed improper to force rabbit meat producers to send their animals for slaughter elsewhere.