Homeowners and conservation groups had their first opportunity this month to point out what many saw as the inadequacies, injustices and contradictions in Marin County’s proposed plan for streamside development in the San Geronimo Valley.
At a community workshop last Monday, planning commissioners heard complaints from homeowners that the new streamside conservation ordinance would prevent vital maintenance projects with no definite benefits to spawning coho salmon and steelhead trout. But the commission also faced a dissatisfied response from the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network, the group whose lawsuit first spurred the county to tackle the thorny issue.
“The county is trying to have as collaborative an approach as possible, operating within the constraints of legal edicts that we are under,” Commissioner Chris Desser, who represents West Marin’s District Four, said at the hearing. “We want to make sure that the burdens we are imposing on the people who live in the San Geronimo Valley are actually going to be meaningful when it comes to saving the species, because that’s the whole point of this.”
Under the ordinance, many valley homeowners would need to seek a site assessment, follow new rules and complete rigorous mitigation measures for a wide range of projects, including roof repairs, tree clearing and shed construction. Deck repairs and other work that may be exempt from the permitting process elsewhere in the county must go through special county review if it takes place within 100 feet of streams in the San Geronimo watershed.
State law sometimes supersedes the ordinance. For example, the state’s laws governing accessory dwelling units would allow most of them without special review. Nonetheless, many projects would be barred, and the county estimates a streamside permit could cost up to $3,885.
“I’m concerned that we won’t be able to maintain our home,” valley resident Jo Carson told the commissioners. “We cannot constantly be applying for permits and jumping through hoops. This is top-down decision making, as opposed to consulting the people who live here.”
She suggested that ocean acidification and other “worldwide concerns,” not home projects, were to blame for the decline of salmon populations.
Lagunitas resident Cari Alter said she was upset by SPAWN’s outsized role in dictating policy for the valley. “Us little homeowners get lost in the shuffle,” she said. “Why are we ruining so many homeowners’ lives when it may not even help the salmon?”
Realtor Niz Brown, who lives in Woodacre, also questioned the premise of the ordinance. She said regulating activities along the creek wouldn’t counteract the harm done to salmon populations by ocean warming. “Everything was pretty peaceful until SPAWN decided to scream bloody murder about the salmon,” she said. “Over the years since they have been talking about salmon, the numbers have diminished every single year. It is something that we aren’t responsible for.”
Salmon surveys conducted by Marin Water earlier this year found just 11 redds, or nests, in San Geronimo Creek, down from 22 last year. The average is 54, but the numbers tend to fluctuate from year to year. The Lagunitas Creek watershed is among the most vital habitats for California’s threatened salmonid population, but only 8 percent of its coho spawning activity came from San Geronimo Creek last year.
SPAWN’s campaign for stricter streamside protections in the watershed has spanned decades, and the nonprofit’s multiple lawsuits have forced the county to incorporate salmon protections into development code. The latest suit came in 2019, when SPAWN alleged the county was violating the California Environmental Quality Act by certifying a supplemental environmental impact report on streamside development without adopting an ordinance that would outline protections for salmon. The county had initially given itself five years to enact the ordinance because it would require more public input, but SPAWN won its case, accelerating the process.
Yet the resulting S.C.A. ordinance remains unsatisfactory to SPAWN and other environmental groups whose representatives spoke at last week’s hearing.
Judy Schriebman, a Sierra Club of Marin board member, raised concerns that the state’s housing guidelines could frustrate the salmon protections by authorizing too many ADUs and, potentially, subdividing parcels. “While there’s a politically sensitive housing crisis,” she told the commissioners, “…there’s also a very real, very serious extinction crisis.”
Preston Brown, SPAWN’s director of watershed conservation, said the ordinance was “a step in the right direction” but failed to meet mandates to preserve habitat because it was too vague, authorized too much cumulative development and lacked a clear mechanism for enforcement.
“We’ve noted some major exemptions, loopholes, conditions of very opaque language, poor definitions, and lack of enforcement procedures and transparency for landowners,” Mr. Brown said.
He argued that the county should eliminate its 500-square-foot building area allowance from the ordinance, along with any exemptions for properties that fall entirely within the S.C.A. buffer zone. He also said the ordinance should establish a firm 35-foot “no-touch zone” along the main creek and add more buffer zones along the small ephemeral streams that drain into it.
Peggy Sheneman, a Woodacre resident who directs the San Geronimo Valley Stewards, a group that arose in response to SPAWN’s activism, said the ordinance is far from perfect from the point of view of homeowners, but that it makes “sensible” recommendations and adequately threads the needle by complying with existing regulations and plans. She advised against heeding any of SPAWN’s latest demands, which she said would hurt middle-class homeowners and pose legal problems for the county.
“SPAWN also wants that a parcel totally within the S.C.A. should not have any development at all,” she told the commissioners. “This creates, of course, a constitutional problem of taking people’s property without just compensation, and I don’t think the county wants to buy 118 parcels that are now located along the S.C.A.s of the main creek.”
She said if the county bowed to SPAWN and established more buffer zones, up to 1,600 homeowners would be unable to make basic repairs.
“SPAWN’s real goal is to have a lot of these older homesteads that are very small, built decades ago, to be declared condemned or unsuitable for human habitation,” Ms. Sheneman said. “They’re targeting homes that are along the creek.”
After last week’s workshop, Ms. Sheneman’s group raised another concern to the commissioners in an email: conflicting and uncertain counts for the number of parcels and homes within the S.C.A. Without a reliable count that differentiates between developed and vacant parcels, Ms. Sheneman said, it will be impossible for the county to measure the impact of development or to calculate the costs of the new regulations for the county and homeowners.
The county will use the finalized ordinance as a model for a countywide S.C.A. plan, but it must first complete the San Geronimo Valley plan to comply with the court order from the SPAWN lawsuit. “The preferred approach would be to look at the countywide plan as a whole, but we have to do this first,” county planner Kristin Drumm said.
The commission will hold another public hearing on Dec. 13, and the public comment period will last until next March, when the Board of Supervisors will consider implementing it.
Despite the hasty timeline, Ms. Drumm said the ordinance is a valuable document. “It’s not just about the fish, but it’s also protecting water quality and the stream bank, as well as the stream as a resource,” she said. “The stream impacts not only the homeowners [upstream] but homeowners downstream, so what you do to the stream does matter.”
At the end of Monday’s hearing, planning commissioners responded to the frustrated valley residents who questioned the merit of the restrictions.
Commissioner Desser asked staff to prepare a more detailed presentation of the scientific justification for the mitigation measures in time for the December hearing. “There needs to be a rational basis that connects the rules that we’re making to the problems that we’re solving,” she said.
For updates, visit www.marincounty.org/depts/cd/divisions/planning/stream-conservation-area-ordinance.