Tomales Bay Oyster Company is seeking approval to hire more employees, expand its hours and host educational tours, reviving a longstanding plan to boost business. The oyster company applied to Marin to update its 35-year-old use permit to allow as many as 25 employees, up from eight, and to open up for weekday oyster sales.
For years, Heidi Gregory’s stepfather, Tod Friend, hoped to expand the oyster company’s hours and workforce, which were cut down when the county began to enforce the company’s use permit more strictly in 2015. Mr. Friend, who co-owned the business, died in a boat accident on Tomales Bay in 2017, leaving Ms. Gregory to step up to his role. Four years later, she said she has built up the energy and resources to resume the work of changing the use permit.
“We want to move forward into the future,” Ms. Gregory said.
She hopes hiring more workers will help lessen the load on her small staff. But permission from the county for more employees does not mean it will be easy to find them. Housing poses the biggest challenge—all the company’s current employees live outside of West Marin, and some carpool from as far away as Napa.
More staff would be essential for Ms. Gregory’s plan to expand her hours, which are currently limited to Friday afternoons and weekends. Ten minutes up the road, Hog Island Oyster Company’s retail window is open seven days a week.
Last year, while most agriculture saw modest growth in Marin, the oyster industry tanked, losing almost half its value when restaurants, the industry’s biggest customers, closed at the start of the pandemic. The 2020 Crop and Livestock Report valued the county’s aquaculture business at about $3.7 million, down from $6.9 million in 2019. But agriculture officials predict the oyster industry will have made up for its losses by the time this year’s report is released.
“This year, the restaurant trade has come back, which is fantastic,” Ms. Gregory said. She didn’t specify how the company’s profits fared during the pandemic.
Tomales Bay Oyster Company’s 217 leased beds have generally yielded enough oysters to sell seven days a week. Though the company sometimes supplements its supply from other farms, Ms. Gregory said the new hours wouldn’t mean she’d have to buy any more oysters from elsewhere. The company relies on outside oysters only when heavy rainfalls or biotoxins affect the safety of the Tomales Bay harvest.
The application represents a new chapter in the company’s long permitting effort, which has been dormant since the death of Mr. Friend. Picnicking hasn’t been allowed on the property since 2015, when the county ordered the business to reduce its hours and remove tables and barbecues. The order came in response to congestion and parking concerns from residents that intensified after the closure of Drakes Bay Oyster Company. By allowing onsite picnicking and week-round operations, the oyster company was violating the terms of its 1987 use permit, county officials said.
The same year, the county denied an earlier application by the company to expand hours, build parking across the highway and bring existing structures up to code. The company later ended up paying a $280,000 settlement to the National Park Service for building a parking area on federal land. Ms. Gregory’s new application would make no change to current parking, which is limited to the west side of the highway, or to the ban on picnicking.
At a September meeting with the East Shore Planning Group, Ms. Gregory received positive feedback, though the group discussed traffic impacts and the trash generated by tourists along the highway. A traffic report attached to the company’s proposal found the plan could generate 87 new vehicle trips per day, including from customers and new employees.
Traffic and trash concerns afflict many plans for commercial expansion in West Marin. Locals should embrace tourism to the area, but many balk at projects that could bring in more visitors, Ms. Gregory said. “We live in a beautiful place,” she said. “People want to come, and we must share it.”
Along with expanded hours and workforce, the company wants its permit to newly allow for educational tours. The oyster company, founded in 1909, is the oldest of its kind in California and the first to successfully grow Japanese oyster varieties in Tomales Bay. Ms. Gregory said tours for groups of up to 30 students could tell this history and help explain the ways oyster growing can benefit the marine environment.
“It’s a fascinating species and a lot of people don’t understand them,” she said. “[With] climate change, oysters are very important. They take carbon out of the ocean and they filter the water and clean it. You’ll know that a bay isn’t clean when there aren’t any oysters in it.”
In its application, the company is also seeking approval of some existing structures that are insufficiently permitted. The company is asking the county to retroactively authorize four retaining walls behind the office, a 128-square-foot covered work area, a trellis, sheds, trash and recycling enclosures, and portable restrooms. “We’re trying to make things right,” Ms. Gregory said. “Bring everything up to code and make it kosher.”
County planner Michelle Levenson said she needs more detailed information on the proposed educational tours and on the proximity of the unpermitted structures to riparian areas before the application is considered complete. Once the oyster company provides that information, planners will conduct a merits review and the application will undergo a public hearing with the deputy zoning administrator.
Finally, because the property lies between the shoreline and the closest public road to the water, the California Coastal Commission will need to sign off on the proposed change.
“Hopefully it’s pretty simple,” Ms. Gregory said. “We don’t want to change much, and we’ll be so happy with that. We’re just trying to better everything in our own little world.”