Coastal Commission ignores local concerns (again)


IMG_20140515_094256Last week, I attended the California Coastal Commission meeting at the Inverness Yacht Club near the Point Reyes Seashore. As usual, the Commission scrutinized a wide variety of issues, some mundane, some unusual. These included: whether wireless antennas on the side of telephone poles destroy view sheds; the racial composition of new hires on the Commission’s staff; the staff’s failure to allow commissioners time for deliberating potential appeals by submitting requests at the last minute; whether the Commission should continue to meet in San Francisco during peak visitor season—December—given the skyrocketing hotel costs, etc. While this was going on inside the yacht club, a very entertaining fracking protest occurred outside. The protest had nothing to do with the Commission’s meeting as fracking was not on the agenda. Nonetheless, the protestors made a good show by dressing up as, among other things, whales in hazmat suits. Unfortunately, when it came to the Commission’s most important decision on this month’s agenda, the Marin County Local Coastal Program, it chose centralized power over local control.

Marin Coastal ZoneOn the second day of the meeting, the Commission attracted a sellout crowd as it considered the Marin County Local Coastal Program’s Land Use Plan (LUP) update. (Six weeks ago the Commission decided to postpone consideration of the accompanying Implementation Plan until later in the year). Although the Plan only applies to Marin’s Coastal Zone, which stretches several miles inland, it has broad and important implications. Under the County’s General Plan, the provisions in the Local Coastal Plan will be extended throughout Marin’s inland areas to cover the entire county. Moreover, other jurisdictions updating their local coastal programs will likely follow Marin County’s lead by adopting similar provisions.

IMG_20140515_084247By way of background, the County was one of the first in California to adopt a Local Coastal Program, which it did in 1981. But, it has spent the last 6 years updating the Land Use Plan. In addition to staff and citizen hours spent drafting and debating the Plan, the cost of preparing this type of plan is exorbitant. (For example, Marin County sea level rise planning alone will cost $2.9 million). Pacific Legal Foundation has been actively following the process and submitted numerous letters over the past several years to the Marin County Planning Commission, the Marin Board of Supervisors, and now the Commission. The following three letters illustrated some of PLF’s concerns. They note that the Plan encourages the County to abuse property owners for dedications, unconstitutionally shifts the burden of showing the impact of projects, expands environmental zones, and restricts the ability of farmers to build homes that could help keep their families on their farms.

In addition to these concerns, the Coastal Commission staff—at the last minute—decided to make many unilateral decisions that overrode the County’s carefully negotiated plan. This conflicts with the Coastal Act, which mandates that the content of Local Coastal Land Use Plans be determined by local governments. One of these changes was to remove the County’s ability to regulate wetlands differently if they were caused by farming activities (i.e. water pooling in tire ruts). Another amendment requires landowners to cluster their houses in order to protect public views of their property—rather than allowing farmers to follow best practices in siting buildings.

Coastal Commission staff’s decision to override the County’s decisions was disheartening. This made the early public meetings seem like a sham to provide cover for the Commission to enact the top-down requirements it had wanted all along. This was made even clearer when several commissioners also tried to incorporate restrictions on vineyards. One commissioner even went so far as to admit that although she spends months in Napa, she can’t stand the way vineyards look and therefore she urged the Commission to restrict Marin County farmers’ right to plant vineyards.
The discussion during the meeting was contentious. One speaker noted that farmers were the most responsible stewards of the land because they must ensure that predators—such as birds and other wildlife—are healthy enough to protect crops from pests. Therefore, the Commission should understand that they aren’t harming the environment when they engage in normal farming practices.

IMG_20140514_112727Another contentious issue in the plan was whether the County could authorize additional housing as a permitted use on farms. Known as “intergenerational housing,” these houses would allow farmers to build homes so that their family could remain on the land. Because over the last 27 years, the County has only approved 13 homes in the “agricultural production zone,” West Marin now faces a severe housing shortage. Despite that fact, one commissioner was concerned that Marin farmers might allow non-family members to stay in homes if they received permits. She also warned farmers that in the future, their less-scrupulous successors might allow non-farmers to visit, or to live in those homes. However, attorneys at the meeting and another commissioner quickly reminded her that the Commission couldn’t control who lived in houses—because doing so would constitute illegal housing discrimination—and so rejected her proposed restriction on who could legally live in inter-generational housing.

On many contentious issues, the Commission decided to wait until the County enacts its Implementation Plan, a separate plan that will become part of the LCP and which will implement the goals and objectives of the Land Use Plan approved last week. But one thing the Commission didn’t do was listen to the agricultural and property owning community of Marin, which requested the Commission suspend voting on the LCP until it spent time hearing from the actual people who will be affected by the plan. Instead, the Commission approved its staff recommendations, disappointing a local community that devoted tremendous resources to a carefully bargained compromise.