Marin County planners announced the first draft of a new stream protection ordinance for the San Geronimo Valley that will toughen the permitting process for streamside work in the Lagunitas Creek watershed.
The draft stream conservation area ordinance, published last week, will enshrine protections for coho salmon that the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network, the local arm of an environmental nonprofit, has been seeking through litigation for more than a decade.
The ordinance won’t please everyone, but it provides thorough guidance where there had been none, said Supervisor Dennis Rodoni. Homeowners will have to make some adjustments, but now they have a clear means for doing so.
“I don’t think everyone will be happy from the environmentalists and the landowners, but it’s kind of a middle road to give everyone a playbook for how this might impact them and their properties,” Supervisor Rodoni said.
A lawsuit by SPAWN, the latest in a decades-long legal battle, prompted the ordinance. The nonprofit alleged in 2019 that the county had violated environmental law by delaying salmon protections after finalizing a supplemental environmental impact report on development along Lagunitas Creek; that environmental report itself was the result of another SPAWN lawsuit. Lagunitas Creek is important spawning habitat for endangered coho salmon, as well as threatened steelhead trout and chinook salmon.
Planners described mitigation strategies for potential development impacts to salmon in the supplemental environmental impact report, and initially gave the county five years to implement them. But in April, a judge sided with SPAWN, forcing the county to hasten the process. Unlike the S.E.I.R., the new ordinance requires public comment and approval by planning commissioners and county supervisors. The county plans to finalize the rules by the end of the year.
The public review draft of the stream conservation area ordinance includes an expansion of the conservation area’s buffer zone to 100 feet from stream banks—up from 20 to 50 feet—and new mitigation requirements.
A wider range of projects, including some accessory dwelling units and solar systems, will now need review before they can be permitted. Concrete flatwork like paving will require special county review.
In their projects, valley homeowners must preserve and replace any riparian plants disturbed by development, refrain from using heavy equipment, use low-wattage outdoor lighting and incorporate permeable surfaces in designs, among numerous other requirements.
Valley homeowners, nearly half of whom live along creeks and streams, have been vocal in their opposition to the new protections. Peggy Sheneman, director of the San Geronimo Valley Stewards, a volunteer group that represents valley homeowners, said the group is disappointed that its major concerns were not addressed in the ordinance.
She said the rules are confusing and put the onus on homeowners to undertake conservation work that has not had clear positive impacts.
“To put the burden on those people is not only unfair, it’s not effective,” Ms. Sheneman said. “They’re not going to be able to afford to do complete creek restorations every time they repair their roof.”
Homeowners who plan to build a garden shed, remove a tree or remove roof gutters now need a professional site assessment and county permit, which Ms. Sheneman said uses up public employee hours and taxpayer dollars without a quantifiable benefit to the salmon
“This ordinance places on 900 San Geronimo families the entire burden of species recovery for coho salmon,” she wrote in a statement. “This year, MMWD counted only 3 redds (nests) and fewer than a dozen mating pairs of fish in San Geronimo Valley creeks. What are we getting for our money?”
Ms. Sheneman said the ordinance should allow homeowners to make immediate repairs in emergency situations, such as roof repairs before winter rains or rotten decks in danger of collapse, without filing a site plan beforehand. But she argued that the county should use tax dollars to help subsidize costs for homeowners, many of whom would be forced to undertake expensive projects.
In addition, some new protections contradict existing rules, she said; protections for riparian vegetation conflict with other county mandates on defensible space, for example. She worried that the ordinance is unclear enough to potentially lead to more litigation from SPAWN, this time against individual homeowners.
“They need to be a lot more clear about the self-contradictory aspects of the ordinance,” she said. “If I build a handicap ramp for grandma, SPAWN can sue me because one of the sections says that’s prohibited.”
Representatives from SPAWN did not respond to requests for comment.
A community workshop and hearing with planning commissioners is scheduled for Oct. 25, and in November, the county will review public feedback on the draft ordinance and consider revisions. On Nov. 8, the planning commission will recommend a revised draft to the Board of Supervisors; the board will hold a final vote on Dec. 7.
The impact of public comments is limited by the fact that the county must comply with its own California Environmental Quality Act documents, and with the court’s order that supported SPAWN.
Feedback on the draft ordinance will help the county clarify language and policies for homeowners, county planner Kristin Drumm said.
“The public can propose any changes they want, and we can take their feedback to the planning commission and the board throughout the process,” she said.
Once the county finalizes the document, planners will use it as a model for a countywide stream conservation area ordinance that will dictate riparian development in all of unincorporated Marin. Compared to the accelerated, court-ordered process for the valley, the countywide ordinance will have a significantly longer schedule.
To read the draft stream conservation area ordinance, visit www.marincounty.org/depts/cd/divisions/planning/stream-conservation-area-ordinance.