West Marin has spectacular scenery and nearly complete growth controls due to three major decisions in the ’60s and ’70s. The county decided to not build two freeways to the coast and along it; the county downzoned most agricultural lands to 60-acre parcel minimums; and Congress created the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962 and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972.
These actions stopped plans for large subdivisions and marinas on the Point Reyes peninsula and the east shore of Tomales Bay.
Yet our area is not safe from creeping commercial development on the east shore. The Tomales Bay Oyster Company was recently found in flagrant violation of its permits; the owner has said he wants to add parking and build a shellfish-growing facility to the east of the highway, both of which are legal under current zoning. Nearby farmers and ranchers want to add small food processing plants in existing structures and small retail buildings with parking lots near the highway; the resulting traffic congestion and safety impacts will be impossible to mitigate.
Meanwhile, agriculture on the east shore may be threatened by increases in weed infestations in the next 10 to 20 years. The county ag department has warned that nearly one-tenth of agricultural lands countywide are already unusable due to invasives; its proposed weed abatement program was turned down by supervisors in 2013.
In the longer term, the region will likely experience greater variation in rainfall, increasing feed costs, and the state or federal governments could adopt a greenhouse gas tax, disadvantaging ranches and dairies where methane is a substantial contributor to global
Meanwhile, agricultural landowners are trying to expand allowable uses to increase property values. The proposed Local Coastal Program amendments that would allow a second residence on up to 27 parcels, as well as unlimited small retail buildings and food processing plants, will increase values in the coastal zone. This, in turn, will increase the cost of acquiring conservation easements. As more millionaires come looking for rural estates, the additional dwellings will be attractive to them.
The existing coastal program has the correct policy—one that keeps ag land values low and thereby reduces speculative buying. We should stick with this policy.
Across the bay, the seashore ranches and dairies are vulnerable to lawsuits. If they lose their leases, operating costs will rise for the remaining ranches in West Marin. The seashore superintendent must respond to her duty to protect natural resources, and facilitate recreation when compatible. The ranches in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area have been phased out, as families retire or move. Founding legislation for both the seashore and G.G.N.R.A. did not specify that ranching must be allowed in perpetuity.
In addition, the regional water board has set standards for Tomales Bay, which is significantly affected by pathogens and sediment; operators will be required to submit ever-more-detailed studies, monitor water bodies more frequently and broadly, and spend more money on manure management.
Based on my reading of regional and national studies, I believe our watershed’s ranches and dairies will find it uneconomic to continue within a matter of years.
If ranch and dairy owners on the east shore foresee a time when they will not be viable, they may attempt to be removed from ag zoning. In fact, the Coastal Act has a provision allowing ag parcels to be designated for suburban subdivision when ag uses are no longer economically viable. The recently submitted L.C.P. amendments would allow such non-ag land uses if the owner can show “economic hardship” and a need for the income.
A U.C. Cooperative Extension survey from 2003 showed that 20 percent of Marin operations were reported to be unprofitable; about 25 percent of owners worked off-farm in non-ag occupations and 36 percent reported that farming was not their principal income. Weed infestations since then have probably increased the number of ranches losing money.
From this data, I surmise that a significant number of ranches could apply for Coastal Act waivers and be allowed to subdivide for rural residences. We cannot count on the coastal commission to protect these lands from development.
Nor is aquaculture sustainable in the bay. The Fish and Game Commission has stated that it is developing best management practices for shellfish farming. Due to extensive littering, all the shellfish farms are liable to lawsuits and enforcement action. Moreover, according to one oyster farmer, acidification will render shellfish growing infeasible in a few years.
I suggest a few potential alternatives to both the near-term, scattered commercialization of agricultural lands and the medium-term large-scale conversion of whole parcels to residential
First, the county should adopt a scenic corridor along the coast highway. That zone would prohibit new building and protect historic buildings within the road’s viewshed (up to perhaps half a mile). Second, ag zoning should be increased to 640 acres for new parcels, which is more in line with actual parcel sizes and reflects the minimum land area needed for grazing. Sonoma County has 640-acre minimum zoning for all new grazing parcels. Third, our supervisors should adopt a weed management ordinance that requires ranchers to control invasives.
If supervisors do not adopt these protections, but instead pave the way for development with the amended L.C.P., we could see citizens advocating for G.G.N.R.A. to acquire the ag parcels on the east shore. A more limited step would be to merely extend the boundary of G.G.N.R.A. to include this area, and adopt a policy against second residences and any retail and industrial facilities. In this scenario, the park service would be empowered to acquire any parcels on which the owners applied for these added uses. This method of open space protection has been successfully adopted in other rural areas, such as Cape Cod.
In the long run, perhaps the best way to protect the east shore lands for agriculture and as a vital backdrop for Tomales Bay tourism would be to add them to the California Coastal National Monument, which was created by President Clinton in 2000 and protects over 20,000 small islands. President Obama expanded it in 2014 to protect coastal dairy lands in Mendocino County. Congressman Huffman supported this executive order; his bill to add these lands was passed unanimously in the House, but was dropped in the Senate. In 2015, Senators Boxer and Feinstein introduced an act to expand the monument by adding six areas in Humboldt, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo Counties. Obama’s last months in office represent an opportune time to add the east shore to Rep. Huffman’s bill and the executive order.
Bob Johnston is a retired professor who lives in Inverness.