Marin ag groups parse Coastal Act with regulators

David Briggs
The California Coastal Commission met Wednesday in San Rafael to get feedback about it's agricultural regulations.

In a rare appearance in Marin County, the California Coastal Commission sought feedback Wednesday on the agricultural regulations at the heart of its voter-mandated mission to preserve, protect and restore the shoreline from sweeping development and environmental degradation.

Nearly all of Marin’s coast is protected from development by national park ownership or agricultural land-use policies endorsed by the Coastal Act, the 1976 state policy that empowered the coastal commission to have quasi-judicial regulatory authority over land use as much as several miles from the coast, from Stinson to Dillon Beach. West Marin’s coastal agricultural operations—not to mention other proposed and existing developments—are often bound by the controversial decisions made by politically appointed commissioners following a process that can be both lengthy and costly for permit seekers. And even when permits are issued, they often come with hosts of conditions and requirements, and can be challenged in court by neighbors and environmental groups.

Developers who fight for permits say the expense of the process can make proposals untenable, and farmers and ranchers say they often do not apply for permits that could guarantee the viability of an agrarian lifestyle because of the fear of the cost.

These concerns were on display at the coastal commission’s meeting on Wednesday, which drew around 75 people to Civic Center in San Rafael, including dozens of ranchers and agricultural advocates, who wore stickers declaring, “I am a Calivore.” Their interests were represented most directly by Marshall-based organic dairy farmer Albert Straus, who sat on a panel that included scientists and representatives from state agencies.

Mr. Straus described what he sees as the obstacles to successful coastal agriculture, the barriers to farmers wishing to experiment with new land-use approaches, the high cost of housing for owners and farmworkers and the continuing threat of agriculture being crowded out by “second homes and tourism.”

“The coastal commission should not label or try to regulate one form of agriculture as detrimental and other forms of agriculture as beneficial,” Mr. Straus said. “A permitting process placed on farming operations that tries to limit ordinary practices is simply counter-productive. And interpretation by the coastal commission of ordinary farming methods that is punitive, bureaucratic, costly and short-sighted will negatively impact agriculture’s future viability.”

Much of the agricultural land-use in Marin long predates conservation-minded policy, with generations of ranching operations dating back to the 19th century, when Spanish Franciscans grazed cattle on Point Reyes.

The impetus for coastal preservation statewide came from a pushback against increasing subdivisions and development, as wells as oil spills that covered miles of coast and sea life and galvanized grassroots environmental movements.

Longtime Inverness Park resident and environmentalist Peter Douglas, who died last year, helped author both the Coastal Act and the 1972 voter initiative, Proposition 20, that gave rise to the commission. He championed the protection of the environment against what he described as the destabilizing influences of capitalism.

Politically the Coastal Act faced opposition from opponents in labor groups, with whom Governor Jerry Brown negotiated to get the legislation passed.

The proposition had set up regional coastal commissions; the first to be appointed to a regional commission was then-mayor of Fairfax Frank Egger. Mr. Egger went on a fact-finding mission, traveling along the coast with a photographer. The situation they found was dire. “For sale signs, up and down the coast,” Mr. Egger said.

In subsequent years the coastal commission would fight developers and other state agencies, like Caltrans, the state transit authority, the Fish and Game Commission and the State Parks Commission.

“Folks were going, ‘Who the heck is the coastal commission,’” Mr. Egger said. The commission denied the parks
commission a permit to remove the Steep Ravine cabins near Muir Beach, which Mr. Egger said would have further limited affordable access to the coast.

The regional commissions, of which former Supervisor Gary Giacomini and Marin Agricultural Land Trust founder Phyllis Faber were both members, were later dissolved. But the statewide commission remained, fighting development like Oceana Marin subdivisions in Dillon Beach and Sea Ranch in Sonoma.

Mr. Douglas led commission staff as executive director from 1985 to 2011, during which time the organization saw criticism from property-rights advocates and two successive Republican governors, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. The commission also fought accusations of political influence: in 1993 a former commissioner was sentenced to prison time for soliciting bribes and in 2002 an appeals court, which was later overruled by the state Supreme Court, found that the commission was an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers.

A 2003 reform ended a practice that allowed political authorities to strip commissioners of their powers at will and at any time. The 12 commissioners are appointed, four by the governor and eight by the legislature, and they have faced reams of lawsuits and rounds of angry public criticism—as well as praise—for decisions on environmental grounds against Lawson’s Landing campground in Dillon Beach, the Drakes Bay Oyster Company and other local development initiatives.

“The closed-session agenda [where ongoing litigation is discussed] looks like an Inverness phone book in terms of the number of listings,” said Supervisor Steve Kinsey, appointed as a commissioner in 2011. “The commission has a very sober set of responsibilities, and it’s a highly contested part of our state. It has huge resource values, but also huge economic values, so I think it’s natural that there will be ongoing variance in the advocacy perspectives.”

Supervisors are making final changes to the county’s Local Coastal Program—the rubric for how the county implements the California Coastal Act—that they expect to submit for certification to the coastal commission next month. The amendments tinker with development regulations, like allowing intergenerational housing for agriculture and adjustments to endangered habitat buffers, that farming advocates have praised as a step forward, but some environmental advocates have pushed for further protections.

The Coastal Act’s main goals include maximizing “public access to and along the coast” and “recreational opportunities in the coastal zone.” Yet the affordability of the coast for people who live, work and vacation here also remains an issue. Farmers say the policy achievements of groups like the Marin Agricultural Land Trust have helped, but not guaranteed, that agriculture will remain a practical endeavor—another key pillar of the Coastal Act, which describes agriculture as essential to the economy of the coastal region, a point Mr. Kinsey emphasized.

Staff say the coastal commission has a strong history of respecting agriculture’s past and ensuring its future. As a symbol of its commitment they hired used an agricultural ombudsman to bring that community’s issues to the table.

The coastal commission’s executive director, Charles Lester, said the commission’s limited portfolio of agriculture permits suggests that many of the permitting issues addressed by farmers are actually disputes with the counties, which issue many coastal permits.

“A review of the permits in our system for the last 13 years that address agricultural issues reveals that about 75 percent of those are locally issued permits. So to the extent that this is a regulatory problem we really need to focus on LCP’s and how they’re being implemented,” Mr. Lester said at the hearing on Wednesday. “We continue to support doing appropriate streamlining through the tools that we have. We don’t think that any amendments to the Coastal Act or definitions of development are required. We have the tools we need to address these kinds of questions.”

A commissioner, Steve Blank, shot back that the reason so few Coastal Commission permits deal with agriculture was that many farmers do not even try to pursue permits because of the expense and difficulty.

Mr. Kinsey agreed that the commission’s influence on agriculture has been mixed. “The relationship to agriculture on the coast to date has been to protect it vigorously against development, which I think is appropriate, but not to support it in terms of the needs of producers,” Mr. Kinsey said in an interview. “It’s making it too bureaucratic [to have a ranch or farm], and they have to justify their actions rather than be supported in their actions.”

Mr. Kinsey said that was the reason a summit was a helpful primer for commissioners: “In many communities agriculture has been taken for granted, and as we’ve become an urbanized society very few people have an understanding of the needs of farmers… [This lack of understanding] gets in the way of effective policy because it puts up barriers where none are needed and it creates hardship when there should be help.”