The California Coastal Commission on Thursday approved a long-deferred plan by Tony Magee to develop a brandy distillery in Marshall. The plan would also permanently conserve for agricultural purposes and habitat protection the vast majority of the Lagunitas Brewing Company founder’s 150-acre pasture alongside Highway One at Marconi Cove.
Adjacent neighbors appealed the project’s approval to the coastal commission in 2010 after the Marin County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors gave Mr. Magee a green light. A group of opponents, including the Marin branch of the Sierra Club, argued that the installation of a distillery would not be in keeping with the area’s agricultural land use and would present a host of environmental concerns, from the fire hazard of making alcoholic beverages to the risk of disrupting the habitat of an endangered red-legged frog that lives on part of the property.
“A million dollars was spent to satisfy my neighbor’s lust for everything he can see,” Mr. Magee said after the commission’s meeting in Santa Barbara, estimating the amount spent by himself, opponent Scott Kivel and the coastal commission on legal and impact-assessment fees. “I saw it through on principle because I hate cheaters.”
Mr. Kivel did not respond to requests for an interview.
Mr. Magee said that his plan was developed in strict accordance with the Local Coastal Program, which governs Marin shoreline property protected under the California Coastal Act.
Opponents said distilleries count as industrial, not agricultural, land use in part because of their unique risks. “Siting an industrial brandy distillery in the remote village of Marshall only 75 feet from Marconi Cove and 150 feet from a ... stream entering Tomales Bay is setting a time bomb in our watershed,” Mr. Kivel said during the meeting. “This use will open our coastline to industrial development in a way not seen on Tomales Bay. Our agricultural, rural community character is at stake.”
Coastal commission staff reviewed reams of studies on the project and decided that a small distillery producing 1,000 bottles per year would be in keeping with local regulations that allow for “facilities for processing or retail sales of agricultural products.”
Champions of the grape-growing and winemaking operation include coastal commissioner and Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey. “I believe that small innovative value-added uses like that are not simply boutique gestures, but rather incubators for the next generation of profitable activities,” Mr. Kinsey said. “Remember, 20 years ago, no one was growing olives. Straus was a lonely organic dairyman for years. Today, 70 percent of our dairies have gone organic. Grass-fed beef, cheese-making and local row crops all began small. Even Tony Magee’s national brewery began in a garage. Agriculture is too important to our history, our stewardship goals, and our local economy to let a neighbor’s opposition undermine its approval, and the coastal commission overwhelmingly agreed,” Mr. Kinsey said in an email. At the meeting, he added: “Agriculturalists on this coast are frightened by Coastal Act because they see that people can come out and make really strong claims that would undermine the agriculture.”
The commission’s approval of the viticulture project comes with a host of special conditions—19 in all—that require all grapes used in distillation to be grown on the property, set farm animals’ grazing and development activity away from sensitive habitats and require that the property’s owners be liable for any of the coastal commission’s legal fees incurred in subsequent litigation on the project.
Mr. Magee said some of the requirements are “antithetical to agriculture,” and asked that people consider “the actual relevance” of the ponderous and often contentious coastal permitting process to sustaining agriculture.