The upper Martinelli ranch is for sale, just north of Point Reyes Station. The ad said it’s a great place for a multi-family compound. No MALT easement. Three parcels totaling 1,040 acres, with an asking price of $12 million. At about $12,000 per acre, it’s priced much higher than other agricultural lands, suggesting the seller is hoping for someone wishing to build a rural estate.
Under the current Local Coastal Program, an agricultural landowner in the coastal zone can build one dwelling per farm, with “farm” defined as all contiguous parcels under common ownership. There are no size limits on new dwellings. So the future buyer of this property could build a large estate home, such as are found in Napa County. Under current rules, about 10 new large farmhouses could be built on the east shore of Tomales Bay.
Unfortunately, the county is proposing amendments to the Local Coastal Program that would allow both a farmhouse and one “intergenerational” dwelling per “farm tract,” or adjacent parcels under one ownership, along with one additional intergenerational dwelling per parcel, the latter subject to Coastal Commission review. The farmhouse and all intergenerational dwellings together could not exceed 8,040 square feet, which could still be attractive to wealthy buyers seeking to build an estate residence. So although the proposal limits the collective size of all dwellings on a farm, it allows more of them to be built.
In the east shore area, the new L.C.P. would allow about 20 new residential units. It would also allow one small industrial operation in an existing structure and one new small retail building per farm tract. The latter can apparently have parking and access roads along the coastal highway. These developments will increase the cost of acquiring conservation easements through the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and reduce the acreage the nonprofit can protect.
Thus, the revised L.C.P. increases development on agricultural lands without serious consideration of other long-range policies needed to keep agriculture viable. The Board of Supervisors should suspend action on the amendments until the new District 4 supervisor is elected. In addition, the county should adopt the weed management plan proposed in 2013 to stop the encroachment of invasive plants on agricultural lands and increase the minimum parcel size in the coastal zone from 60 acres to 640 acres.
MALT was set up to help families finance land purchases from family members and so prevent land sales to non-farmers. About half of our coastal grazing lands are under permanent MALT easements; however, this approach will likely become less effective over time. As the percentage of protected parcels rises, the development value of the holdout parcels also increases, due both to their rarity and their protected views. This will increase sales to non-farmers.
Increasing the parcel-size zoning would reduce the attractiveness of these ranchlands for residential projects by reducing the number of housing units allowable. Napa, Sonoma and Yolo Counties have zoning minimums ranging from 160 to 640 acres; these seem more reasonable for grazing lands.
Another worrisome trend is the invasion of thistles, coyote brush and other plants on grazing lands where owners will not or cannot afford to control them. In 2013, the county attempted to adopt a 10-year invasive weed management plan, saying these species have “rendered thousands of acres of pastureland, rangeland and natural areas unusable…” The supervisors did not adopt this plan, despite the agricultural commissioner’s statement that “if nothing is done to slow and stop the spread of these invaders, it will become unfeasible to attempt to control and manage them.” If lands become useless for grazing, it becomes more difficult to prevent the legal development of individual parcels for other uses.
If Marin weakens the L.C.P. and further residential, industrial and retail development is permitted, national and statewide environmental groups might push for greater federal control. (Indeed, this is what happened in West Marin in the past.) Elected officials could, for example, expand the Golden Gate National Recreation Area or Point Reyes National Seashore boundaries to include the grazing lands on the east side of Tomales Bay. This could give the National Park Service authority to adopt policies to protect natural scenic qualities and to condemn parcels proposed for development that violated these policies. This is taking place in other parts of the country, such as in the Cape Cod National Seashore and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. We could expect little or no condemnation to actually occur, as most landowners would decide to negotiate easements with MALT. But I think Marin would rather solve this problem without further federal intervention.
Marin was a leader in the '60s and '70s with federal parks acquisitions, urban growth boundaries, limits to homes on agricultural lands and conservation easements. Unfortunately, these actions are reaching their limits to fend off threats. We need to continue our progress by examining the long-term impacts of our policies and prevent the coastal program from encouraging the sale of ranches to hobby farmers.
Bob Johnston is a retired professor of land use planning at the University of California, Davis. He lives in Inverness.