Stuck in legal fight, county speeds up stream conservation ordinance

06/16/2021

Homeowners in the San Geronimo Valley are set to face stricter rules on changes to their properties by the end of the year.

Marin is accelerating its timeline for adopting a stream conservation ordinance for the valley, after a judge ruled on a SPAWN lawsuit that the county violated environmental law when it delayed its protections of coho salmon for years. Instead of completing an ordinance next year, the county will release a first draft by the end of the month, then a facilitator hired by the county will begin a public engagement process, shorter than originally planned.

The planning commission is scheduled to review the rules on Oct. 25, and the Board of Supervisors can adopt them on Dec. 7. “We would love to try to get this lawsuit behind us, and we would love to increase environmental protection in the area, so the county is trying to prioritize expediting the ordinance,” said county counsel Brian Washington.

Judge Andrew Sweet ruled in April that Marin should have adopted stream protections in 2019 when it finalized an environmental impact report that detailed mitigation measures for development. He did not issue a legal mandate to finish the ordinance, but the county appealed the ruling on June 9 to preserve its legal position. Before the appeal is heard, however, the county could complete the ordinance and resolve the legal dispute. “We’re going on multiple paths to try to get to the end as soon as possible,” Mr. Washington said.

SPAWN’s executive director Todd Steiner said the county’s new timeline is a result of immense legal and public pressure after more than 14 years of delay and denial. “Political pressure is mounting after its failure to do the right thing and protect endangered salmon, wasting millions of tax-payer dollars in the process trying to defend its illegal actions,” he said.

The stream conservation ordinance will amend four sections of the county’s development code. It will include a list of best management practices that every project will have to check off. For example, heavy equipment won’t be permitted to remove materials, and vegetation may have to be replaced by a two-to-one ratio. Even small projects like putting a fence around garbage cans or installing a gravel walkway would require a professional site assessment and a permit that could be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

Members of the public will be able to offer feedback on the rules, but planners are limited in the changes they can make because the ordinance must align with language in the countywide plan and comply with the 2019 environmental impact report. “Within that context, we have some wiggle room, but not a lot,” planner Kristen Drumm said.

The ordinance in the valley will be used as a model for a countywide ordinance that protects streams throughout Marin.