1976 was a watershed year for West Marin’s priceless coastal resources – the California Coastal Act was passed into law, implementing the coastal initiative passed by voters in 1972, and Congress passed the Point Reyes Wilderness Act, which designated over 33,000 acres of the National Seashore as wilderness, thereby securing its protection under the 1964 Wilderness Act. EAC is the only organization working to honor the intent and mandates of both laws – to ensure full wilderness status for the West Coast’s only Congressionally designated marine wilderness area at Drakes Estero, and ensure that Marin County’s Local Coastal Program Amendment does not weaken existing coastal resource protections. Both matters have significant legal, policy, and scientific details to analyze and consider, and EAC has remained continuously engaged to uphold West Marin’s environmental integrity.
Draft Local Coastal Program Amendment Weakens Current Coastal Protections
For the past three years, the County has been updating the coastal protection policies that implement the California Coastal Act, called the Local Coastal Program, as well as the development code provisions that implement the policies. Beginning last summer, the Planning Commission held numerous public hearings to review and discuss the proposed policy and code changes, which are substantial. These changes make up the Local Coastal Program Amendment document that the Planning Commission approved in February, and which the Board of Supervisors will consider beginning in August. While some important improvements are proposed to Marin’s coastal protection regulations, like improved stormwater management best practices, significant deficiencies remain. EAC continues to engage and advocate vigorously for environmental protections at least equal to those currently in place.
Despite everyone’s best efforts and hard work, the draft LCP Amendment still needs a considerable amount of work to comply with Coastal Act requirements. Since last summer EAC has reviewed, analyzed, and commented on the nearly 4,000 pages of development code and land use policy documents that have been part of the public process to amend Marin County’s LCP. EAC’s in-depth review reveals that the draft LCP documents approved by the Planning Commission in February – both the LCP policies and corresponding Development Code updates – would weaken protections for environmentally sensitive habitat areas and agricultural lands. The California Coastal Commission staff has expressed similar concerns in numerous letters to the County. EAC will continue to engage the County and Coastal Commission staff to ensure current coastal protections are not weakened.
The Amended LCP Should Be At Least As Strong as the Current LCP
The LCP Amendment must be consistent with the provisions of the Coastal Act. Therefore, the baseline against which the proposed LCP Amendment must be measured is the existing LCP that was certified and approved by the Coastal Commission in 1981. Proposals to measure the LCP Amendment against the Countywide Plan should be rejected since the latter does not incorporate the provisions of the California Coastal Act. West Marin’s coastal resources, which are state and national treasures, deserve the full protections embodied in the California Coastal Act.
Rushed Process Has Led To Little Public Involvement, Weaker Protections
The County’s process for the LCP Amendment has been protracted, yet rushed through public hearings that virtually assured little public involvement and input. There has been insufficient time provided to the public for orderly and informed consideration of the voluminous materials and information – nearly 4,000 pages from June 2011 to February 2012. Although numerous workshops and hearings were held throughout the process, neither staff nor the public could have a full comprehension of the magnitude of the substantial revisions proposed to both the LCP and Development Code. One result: the draft LCP document that the Board of Supervisors will consider in August fails to adequately protect the most sensitive and important environmental and coastal resources designated for priority protection under the California Coastal Act, and numerous inconsistencies remain.
Findings Justifying Amendments Not Provided to Public For Review
In an April, 2009 letter the Coastal Commission informed the County that, “Where you proposed to alter or delete standards in the certified LCP it is important to provide data and analysis explaining the change so it can be evaluated for conformance with the Coastal Act.” The public deserves a full and fair opportunity to review all purported data or studies on which the County and its staff are relying in proposing the LCP Amendment. EAC has asked that this information be given to the public prior to the August public hearing. To date, this information has not been provided for the public to review.
Significant Background Information Deleted
As the proposed LCP Amendment notes, “The original plans contain important information regarding
the natural resources, geology, and historical development of the Coastal Region. This plan is a
continuation of the direction and foundation of knowledge established in the original plans.” However, very little of the information from the original LCP has been updated and brought into this LCP despite having already been certified by the Coastal Commission. For example, the Biological Resources section’s introduction and discussion is less than half as long as the comparable section in the existing Unit II LCP alone. Among the elements omitted are:
• Mention of the dependence of Black Brant and Pacific herring upon eelgrass in Tomales Bay for food.
• Discussion of the resources of and threats to Estero Americano and Estero de San Antonio.
• Discussion of the ecological role of riparian habitats.
• Discussion of the importance of freshwater flow into Tomales Bay.
EAC has repeatedly requested that this substantive information be retained, and updated to the extent possible, and used as the foundation of the LCP Amendment policies.
Wetlands and Stream Buffers Must Be Retained
Currently, wetlands and streams are protected with a buffer of 100 feet or more. The proposed LCP would weaken this in several ways. Exemption from buffer standards would be expanded to include development if such development would be “infeasible” outside a buffer and to permit projects where a parcel is only “substantially located within a stream buffer.”
The proposed LCP would expand the buffer exemption to ordinary projects. Having set a 100 foot minimum buffer size, there is no justification for reducing that buffer size except in the rare circumstances and to prevent a taking of private property. The existing protections for wetlands and stream buffers should be maintained.
Water Quality Impacts Not Adequately Addressed
Both the Natural Systems and Water Resource sections omit mention of the often substantial impacts to water quality from agricultural operations and dilapidated septic systems. In the current LCP Unit II, water quality problems from improper agricultural practices are acknowledged. The LCP Amendment must likewise acknowledge that agriculture and outdated septic systems substantially contribute to the impaired state of Tomales Bay which remains an impaired water body under section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act due to nutrient loading, pathogens, sedimentation from upland practices, and mercury. The Tomales Bay Watershed Council conducts water quality sampling in Tomales Bay and reports the results to the public. These reports are the best available science addressing year-round water quality impacts to the Bay. EAC has repeatedly encouraged the County staff to utilize this best available science for decision-making and to require appropriate monitoring and mitigation. EAC will continue to advocate for policies that would improve the impaired water quality status of Tomales Bay.
Impacts to Water Resources Inadequately Addressed
Having a reliable and safe water supply is of special importance to the coastal marine and visitor-serving facilities. The LCP Amendment is incomplete and misleading because it ignores the clear mandate under the existing LCP and Coastal Act that a coastal development permit is required for all wells, including exploratory and agricultural wells without limitation. The LCP Amendment needs to require that new wells within the coastal zone not only secure a permit, but pro-actively perform groundwater tests to show that the new well will not have adverse impacts on neighboring wells and surface water flows.
Given the increasing number of competing demands for water, and the expected effects of climate change and sea level rise, it is imperative that all new wells and water sources secure a permit after demonstrating no adverse impacts.
The LCP Amendment gives consideration only to effects on sensitive habitats, not for the consequences to other properties and to the health of our public water supply. Particularly in the Tomales Bay watershed, the potential adverse effects of an exploratory or agricultural well depend entirely on the location and depth of the well and the amount of its production.
• An upstream agricultural well can deplete or divert the aquifers with the result that existing down-slope wells or springs utilizing the same or nearby aquifers are depleted, with devastating effect on those who rely on that water for drinking and other fresh water uses. This could adversely affect commercial and recreational marine activities as well as visitor serving uses such as accommodations and restaurants that depend on the water supply, not to mention existing homes and businesses.
• Over drawing water from an aquifer can allow saline or other non-drinkable water to migrate to the aquifer, temporarily or permanently making it useless as a fresh water source to the particular well and to others using the same aquifer.
Weakened Protections For Agricultural Lands
The LCP, the county’s agricultural zoning, and land trust conservation easements have been largely successful in preserving open space, habitat, and viewsheds in the coastal zone. EAC is concerned that the County’s proposed LCP revisions weaken these existing protections. The staff has offered no analysis of how the proposed revisions to the Agriculture Element, which allow more non-agricultural use of agricultural lands and exempt certain uses from protection measures like Master Plans, would affect these lands.
EAC has repeatedly stated that its goal is to find the right balance with the LCP between the need to continue existing strong coastal resource protections while finding creative ways to allow local food producers, ranchers, dairies, and their workers the means to thrive, all while addressing needed protection and improvement of the water quality in Tomales Bay.
The Coastal Commission has repeatedly stated its concern “that existing protections would be weakened and the need for adequate analyses to evaluate the consistency of these changes with the Coastal Act.” The County staff, partially due to the limited available time, have presented no findings or facts to address the Commission’s overall conclusion that the current draft as proposed would weaken protections for coastal resources in the agricultural protection zone.
Weakened Building Clustering Requirement
Clustering is a land use concept applied to group buildings and structures so that the largest available land area remains open or for productive purposes. The current LCP mandates clustering but the proposed new clustering language states that non-agricultural development shall be placed in one or more groups on a total of no more than five percent of the gross acreage to the extent feasible. Strict standards for grouping are essential — the “one or more” groups “to the extent feasible” opens the way for piecemeal development that is incompatible with agricultural uses. EAC repeatedly requested, but was not provided, a justification for this considerable weakening of agricultural use protections.
Coastal Permit Needed for Intensification Of Land Use
Under the Coastal Act, any intensification of land or water use requires a coastal permit. This is the only way to ensure that any proposed intensification of land use would not cause negative impacts to Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas, wildlife, and other important coastal resources. For example, a decision by a local agricultural producer to change the primary use from ranching to vineyards could place an irrevocable strain on water supplies, and the terracing of sloped hillsides could increase erosion and pesticide use near streams and wetlands on the property. The coastal development permit process plays a vital part in ensuring the sustainable use of land and water, conformance to community plan standards, and support for the long term, cumulative health of agricultural lands and wildlife habitat in the coastal zone.
A new concept introduced in the LCP Amendment process, which EAC supports, to is to allow an “inter-generational” house to be built on agricultural lands. This would allow older generation farmers or ranchers to remain living on their property while the younger generation moves on to continue working the land. This is essentially a new development right for ag land owners, but one that should have benefits beyond the impacts of the development it entails. Currently agricultural landowners would need to secure subdivision approval in order to utilize their allowable housing density and construct new housing. EAC supports the idea of allowing an inter-generational house and farmworker housing that is properly sited and clustered, adequately protects environmentally sensitive habitat areas, and complies with all other coastal protection regulations.
EAC Working to Protect the Entire Tomales Bay Watershed and Beyond
Despite the number of issues of concern remaining with the LCP Amendment, EAC will remain fully engaged in the public process and beyond. As always, you can count on EAC to ensure protection of the lands, waters, and all resident and migratory inhabitants of the Tomales Bay Watershed and West Marin coastal zone!
Thanks to Planning Commission, and Coastal Commission and County Staff
EAC would like to extend its sincere thanks to you the Marin County Planning Commission and planning staff for their diligent and thorough work the past several months. We would also like to extend our sincere thanks to the California Coastal Commission’s staff for consistently and diligently providing comments on the draft LCP Amendment language.