State agency recognizes villages’ value

11/18/2020

The Alliance of Coastal Marin Villages has been pleading with the California Coastal Commission to better recognize the ways in which coastal communities are impacted by increasing tourism and are in need of protection and relief. Now, after eleventh-hour changes made last week, the commission’s five-year strategic plan reflects those sentiments.

The alliance, a group of representatives from every town between Dillon Beach and Muir Beach, convened two years ago to address tourism impacts. Over the past year, it has provided comments on the coastal commission’s draft strategic plan, but the final version, released this month for approval by commissioners, lacked its requested changes.

“First and foremost, we believe the strategic plan is flawed as a consequence of its failure to prioritize the preservation of a critical coastal resource: The unique coastal communities that serve to attract millions of coastal visitors,” alliance chair Jennifer Blackman wrote to the commission on Nov. 4. 

Commissioner Katie Rice was instrumental in elevating the concern and making last-minute alterations at a hearing two days later. Ms. Rice, who also serves as a Marin County supervisor, suggested revising the plan’s vision statement.

Gaining support from her fellow commissioners and the agency’s staff, Ms. Rice suggested that a new section read, “Scenic rural landscapes are maintained, coastal agriculture is flourishing, cultural resources are protected, and the coastal communities and neighborhoods that attract so many visitors maintain their unique character, social and economic viability.” 

Ms. Blackman, who serves as the general manager for the Bolinas Community Public Utility District, expressed gratitude for the commission’s acknowledgement of her position in a letter sent last week. Back in February, she fleshed out the scope of the problem. 

“Increasing tourism to our communities has these impacts: excessive trash; stress on local water sanitation systems; the need for more public bathrooms; traffic congestion; traffic-related threats to public safety; noise and disturbance of fragile local ecosystems; and parking challenges for visitors and locals alike. Addressing these impacts often exceeds the capacity of the existing infrastructure and local financial resources,” Ms. Blackman wrote.

The letter called on the coastal commission to balance its goals of preserving natural resources and public access with the additional goal of preserving coastal communities. “As directed by the Coastal Act, the CCC needs to balance the laudable goal of preserving public access against these impacts to ensure there is reasonable management of public access, financial resources for impacted communities to retain their special character, and attention to these consequences in connection with new development and other CCC policies,” it stated.

Chris Desser, a Marin County Planning Commissioner and a member of the East Shore Planning Group, which is part of the alliance, emphasized the importance of the issues to the Light this week. Ms. Desser served as a coastal commissioner between 1999 and 2003. 

“The numbers of people who are visiting the coast now compared to when the Coastal Act was enacted have vastly increased—it’s millions and millions more,” she said. “While prioritizing visitor-serving uses, the commission has not always recognized the significant impact this tremendous increase in tourism is having on the coastal communities. Now that the commission has incorporated our concerns about maintaining community character into the strategic plan, the issue remains on the commission’s radar screen and provides a legitimate basis for considering matters that the county might raise with them—parking, and traffic impacts for example.” 

Recently Bolinas sought help from the county and coastal commission over parking congestion downtown. The commission was especially concerned that any restrictions might limit visitor access to the beach. In the end, they came to an agreement: Beginning this spring, oversized vehicles have not been allowed to park downtown overnight. Marin plans to release an analysis of the efficacy of the new rules later this month. 

Ms. Desser highlighted that the language the alliance advocated for “should not be misconstrued as lifting the drawbridge.” 

She explained, “When we talk about preserving community character, that is not code for keeping the coast for white, rich people. We have exactly the opposite view: We are talking about preserving diversity of every kind. How do we keep these communities where working-class people can continue to live?”

Part of the group’s vision was the preservation and development of affordable housing on the coast, though that was not ultimately included in the vision statement. 

In addition to Ms. Rice’s changes, the commission published an addendum to the strategic plan that includes several other language changes concerning the value of preserving the special character of communities. 

The plan, which identifies 199 priority actions through 2025, is divided into nine general goals. Among those are enhancing agency capacity and maintaining an effective and diverse workforce; maximizing public access and recreation for all; protecting and enhancing coastal resources; supporting resilient coastal communities in the face of climate change and sea-level rise; advancing diversity, equity, environmental justice and tribal relations; continuing to enhance Local Coastal Program planning; and expanding enforcement.

Following the alliance’s suggestions, the plan contains an updated provision within the section on maximizing public access: “Work with agency partners (e.g. California State Parks, State Coastal Conservancy, Caltrans, regional transportation entities, local governments) on addressing the impacts of increased visitation and provide for safe public access-related facilities for all users, including for parking, restrooms, and waste management, at state parks and along California Highway 1, along coastal roadways, and in coastal communities.”

The commission also incorporated the alliance’s feedback in the goals related to the Local Coastal Program planning process. The section now reads, “It is critical to continue the commission’s ongoing efforts to improve communication and collaboration with local governments on L.C.P. implementation as well as key coastal planning concerns in recognition of the local governments’ responsibility to balance development that provides vibrant and diverse communities while protecting coastal resources and priority uses under the Coastal Act.” 

Preserving the special character of the coastal villages is a value already upheld in Marin’s Local Coastal Program. Marin’s 1982 L.C.P., a set of regulations agreed upon by the county and the commission that govern new development on the coast, has been mostly updated. Two remaining sections pertaining to environmental hazards hang in the balance, and will be guided in part by a joint statement on climate-change adaptation planning the commission published last week with the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties. 

Jack Liebster, the county planning manager who is working with the commission to update Marin’s L.C.P., said he was glad to see new language in the strategic plan. “You don’t have these kinds of distinct and authentic coastal villages along the coast in many places. It wasn’t given the attention that it should have been given,” he said. 

The 12-member commission finalized the strategic plan last week, noting that budget cuts resulting from the pandemic will hinder its ability to carry out its strategies. Jack Ainsworth, the commission’s executive director, gave emotional testimony about the staffing difficulties at the agency, among other grievances endured during 2020. Many commissioners offered their support, underscoring that they would help identify priorities within the plan to make it doable moving forward.