Sierra Club sues over coastal plan’s agricultural housing rules


The Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission to invalidate the first revision of the Local Coastal Program since it was passed three decades ago.

The legal action, filed in Marin Superior Court on July 10, alleges that the coastal commission’s May approval of intergenerational housing on farms and ranches would drastically increase development in violation of the Coastal Act’s guiding principles. 

The Sierra Club also argues that the commission did not prepare a thorough environmental review before approving the Land Use Plan Amendment—the most substantial portion of the L.C.P.—because no potential alternatives or mitigations were listed in an analysis that should have been equivalent to an environmental impact report under state law.

“We are gravely concerned that, if allowed to stand, the Commission’s process and decisions regarding the Marin Local Coastal Plan Amendment will substantially  weaken environmental protections along the entire California coast,” Elena Belsky, a member of the Sierra Club Marin Group’s executive committee, said in a press release.

A coastal commission spokeswoman, Sarah Christie, said the state agency had not yet been served papers, so she could not comment on the case. Marin County, also named as a defendant, was notified last Wednesday, but its county counsel said the main respondent is the state commission, since their action is being challenged.

The state’s 1976 Coastal Act mandated a Local Coastal Program as a guide for conservation and development along the coastline. Each county creates individual land use policies, densities and regulations to enact state law at the local level. Marin’s coastal zone—usually measured as 1,000 yards inland from the mean high tide line and up to the first major ridgeline, or five miles in significant areas—totals nearly 75 square miles. 

The county initiated a revision process in 2008 to implement new research and trends as well as its experiences implementing the L.C.P. since it was certified in 1981. The Sierra Club sent out a last-minute email blast the week before the coastal commission was set to approve the revised Land Use Plan in May, warning members the new document “goes way too far” and would allow residential and commercial development on agricultural land without the ability to appeal to the commission.

“Without the public’s right to participate in public hearings and to appeal permits for the siting, design and location of over 1 million square feet of new development there is no chance that Marin’s stunning coastal zone will be protected,” the Sierra Club alert said.

Those claims were in large part refuted at the hearing, when commission staff clarified a change in terms from “parcel” to “legal lots.” County planners explained that new requirements were actually stricter for where housing could be built, and simple calculation proved that 1 million square feet is about 22 acres in Marin’s 30,000-acre coastal zone.

Though the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin had first joined the Sierra Club in expressing concern with the amendments, the group decided against being a party to this month’s lawsuit.

“E.A.C. is committed to working with the Coastal Commission staff to address our concerns in the Implementation Plan”—a specific set of rules for realizing the L.C.P.’s vision that will likely be voted on by the coastal commission later this year—Amy Trainer, the nonprofit’s executive director, told the California Planning & Development Report, where the news was first reported. “We decided that a lawsuit at this time was not in our best interest.”

Ms. Trainer did side with the Sierra Club’s criticism that “little to no environmental impact analysis was performed” after the May revisions to the L.C.P., but said the proliferation of new houses on ranches was unlikely. “Most agricultural operators in the coastal zone have no intention currently to do this,” she told C.P.D.R. “We are hopeful that Marin Agricultural Land Trust is working to secure both conservation easements and affirmative agricultural easements to prevent hobby farms.”

In their initial petition to the court, the Sierra Club, represented by San Rafael lawyer John Sharp, repeats the claim that adding new residences or processing facilities on farmland under a “re-definition” of parcels would “expose the coastal zone” to 1 million square feet of development “without scrutiny or regulation.” They claim that allowance violates provisions of the Coastal Act that require maximizing “prime agricultural land,” limiting new subdivisions for residential development and preventing the blocking of natural vistas.

The group filed the lawsuit because if the plan went “unchallenged,” it would set a precedent of “poor process and lack of environmental review, which could become the standard for updates of other L.C.P.’s around the state,” Ms. Belsky, of the Sierra Club Marin Group, said. “The result would be to open up the California coast to increased development and allowed uses without public process.” 

Critics have disparaged the court challenge as a “bizarre” and “uninformed” attempt to undo the six-year revision process to the L.C.P. in “pursuit of a decades-old grudge against Marin County and its elected officials,” said Wade Holland, West Marin’s representative on the Planning Commission since 2004.

The Sierra Club claims it made its opposition to the L.C.P. clear by “commenting whenever possible in the administrative process” and “communicating extensively” with the county and the coastal commission, a statement from the group said this month.

“That’s a total fiction,” rebutted Mr. Holland, who lives in Inverness. “The fact is that they never participated in any meaningful way at any stage of the process. Not at the community meetings. Not at the Planning Commission. Not at the Board of Supervisors. And not even at the coastal commission when it met in Inverness in May for the crucially important hearing.”