Different proposals for future character of coastal village cores

06/28/2018

The county is hoping to shrink the areas that Marin County’s pending Local Coastal Program update prioritizes for commercial uses in village centers, softening the blow to residents.

In the last two weeks, a senior county planner has made presentations to West Marin village groups to explain the proposal, which Marin officials hope will make its way into the final document. Senior planner Kristin Drumm gave presentations in Point Reyes Station, Bolinas, Marshall and Tomales, displaying maps of the towns that outlined the areas currently zoned V.C.R., or village commercial residential.

Currently, residential and commercial uses are “principally permitted” in those areas, a way of protecting them from opposition by requiring appeals to be handled exclusively by the county, as opposed to the California Coastal Commission. 

Reflecting the terms of the Coastal Act, which prioritizes tourism, the new L.C.P. now reads that there will only be one principally permitted use in the village cores—commercial. Residential use will become “permitted,” a designation that means appeals can go directly to the coastal commission. 

As far as appeals go, however, that change is irrelevant for large swaths of West Marin. All of Bolinas and parts of many other towns already lie in a zone in which projects are appealable directly to the coastal commission. The rule is generally that the appeal zone is between the sea and the first publicly recognized road, often deemed Highway 1.

Yet another change to the language in the new L.C.P. will have an effect, possibly making it more difficult to obtain coastal permits for residential uses. All existing residential uses in village centers can continue, effectively grandfathered in, but under the new policy, new or expanded residential uses in ground-floor spaces that face the street will only be allowed if applicants prove that the new residence “maintains the established character of the village,” per the commission’s language. 

The proposed change will not go into effect until the entire new L.C.P. is certified, likely within the next few years. Yet the county has plans to make further adjustments before that time. 

Ms. Drumm said the county is proposing to shrink the part of the cores principally permitted for commercial use and designate everything else within the current V.C.R. area as principally permitted residential use. This could blunt the possible reduction in the availability of housing. 

“With just one principally permitted use, there will be some more certainty about what is appealable,” she explained. “This is being seen as a way to promote tourism, but, in fact, it is a way to preserve commercial use in the downtown areas.”

Reached by phone this week, senior planner Jack Liebster further elaborated that since the towns in West Marin have had two principally permitted uses—even though the Coastal Act requires just one—the commission has heard appeals to both uses.

Despite Ms. Drumm’s efforts to reframe the debate, many residents are less than pleased with the proposed change. 

“I read this as easing the efforts of a deep-pocket investor who wants to buy a historic home and make it into a cute shop,” Gail Reitano, the former executive director of the Bolinas Community Land Trust, commented at Ms. Drumm’s presentation in Bolinas last Wednesday. “Given how difficult it is to run a business in Bolinas, it likely goes belly up, but then can’t be converted back to residential use. Ten years down the line, I see empty buildings, eyesores everywhere and mad parking issues—I don’t get how this maintains the character of the town.” 

Numerous residents also pointed to the lack of affordable housing in West Marin and questioned the commission’s prioritization of visitor-serving uses.

Ms. Drumm attempted to address some misconceptions during the village meetings. Transitioning a ground-level commercial business to new housing and adding onto existing housing is still possible, she said, as long as the applicant obtains a coastal permit that meets the new requirement of “village character.” 

That characterization is vague enough, Ms. Drumm said, that the county will likely be able to argue in favor of many new residential uses or expansions of current residences.

In order to move forward with the proposal to shrink the cores, the county will have to propose an amendment to sections of the L.C.P. that the Board of Supervisors already approved and which the commission certified last month.

It’s a gamble whether the commission will agree to these after-the-fact changes. But planners also hope to make the corresponding changes in a section called “amendment 7” that is still under negotiation, which includes the definitions of terms used throughout the L.C.P.

No aspect of the new planning document, which updates Marin’s original 1982 L.C.P. and lays the ground rules for development along the coast, will go into effect until the entire document is approved by both agencies. Of its seven sections, two have been approved by both agencies. 

The county expects to resubmit three more by the end of the year, and two sections related to environmental hazards have been postponed.

It was those two sections, which will determine how coastal development regulations will govern the oncoming natural disasters of our age, that the general manager of the Bolinas Community Public Utility District, Jennifer Blackman, flagged during Ms. Drumm’s presentation in Bolinas last week.

“Not to diminish the importance of this issue, but the issues in the environmental hazards section, well, they dwarf this by 10 million,” Ms. Blackman said. “We really need to pay attention, both to the county and the commission’s efforts. Stay interested, and stay vocal. Because the real arguments and battles are to come.”

 

Maps of the county’s latest proposal can be found on the county’s website on the “Local Coastal Program” page.