Marin County Local Coastal Plan

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Marin County Local Coastal Plan

By Kevin Lunny, Marin County Farm Bureau President

Published October 1, 2017

Crop Report
Sonoma-Marin Farm News from December of 1950. Each finger lists an aspect of a vibrant agriculture community as part of the county Farm Bureau: a strong membership, adequate finances, sound programs, member participation and a well-informed membership.

The Marin County Farm Bureau (MCFB) has been working with the Marin County Community Development Agency (CDA), the Marin County Board of Supervisors (BOS) and the California Coastal Commission (CCC) for nearly a decade to update a single planning document – The Marin County Local Coastal Plan (LCP). Unfortunately, by the action of the California Coastal Commission last November, serious issues discussed below have still not been resolved.

The LCP represents an agreement between the coastal county governing officials (in Marin’s case, the BOS) and the CCC about how development will be permitted within the coastal zone that is consistent with the California Coastal Act. Marin’s LCP was last updated in 1983 and is now near the end of the update process. The outcome of this process is not only important to Marin, but many other coastal counties.

The LCP covers many issues – town center planning, sea level rise, affordable housing, environmental hazards, etc. It consists of two parts: the Land Use Plan (LUP) policies and the Implementation Plan (IP) setting our detailed rules, regulations, zoning codes and performance standards. MCFB has been largely focused on the agricultural element of the LCP. Because of the years-long tireless efforts of some MCFB board members and the efforts of CDA and the BOS, the Ag element has been mostly workable. Farmers and ranchers have compromised and given up certain privileges that farmers and ranchers have outside the coastal zone, while preserving our ability to farm on the coast. Of course, we have received opposition from some local special interest groups who believe that agriculture should be more restricted and more regulated. MCFB has not been happy about certain decisions leading up to the new LCP, but has remained engaged, positive and productive along the way.

The process is nearing its end. In November 2016, the CCC approved the LCP, including the AG element with “modifications” that the County would have to accept to put the LCP into effect. Some modifications in particular raise huge issues for all agricultural along the state’s coast. The CCC staff has sought to require that changes in agricultural crops and practices would require a Coastal Permit (CP), although virtually none have been previously required in the Coastal Act’s 40-year history. Marin County forged a compromise in which no permit would be required for ongoing agriculture: “Agricultural production activities (including crop rotation, plowing, tilling, planting, harvesting, and seeding) which have not been expanded into never before used areas.”

However, to respond to concerns from part of the environmental community, the County identified 5 categories of agricultural activities that would require a permit: developing new water sources or extending irrigation systems; terracing land for ag; establishing vineyards; cultivating land exceeding 15% slope, and cultivation of Cannabis. MCFB conceded to these specific Coastal Permit (CP) triggers. Not that a CDP is impossible, but for most agriculturists, the time, money and frustration involved make the process so distasteful that it is usually not worth pursuing.

But the CCC added language that stated that permits “are not limited to” these 5 cases, leaving it very unclear when a permit would be required. This new language, not approved by the BOS could require a rancher or farmer to obtain a CDP for other activities considered development as defined by the Coastal Act. The Coastal Act defines “development” very broadly to include any “change in intensity of use of land or water.” Simply put, this unilateral, unauthorized change to the agreed upon language could end our opportunity to mow forage crops instead of grazing only, end our chances to convert even a small portion of our ranches to specialty crops or convert from one crop to another. This change, if approved, could prohibit ranchers and farmers from responding to market changes, making farm plan changes, responding to climate change or to any other driver that could alter agricultural use of their properties. Requiring a CP to farm, in many cases, would be tantamount to regulating family farms out of business.

Just as troubling are the adopted “findings” (the legal rationale) for the action the CCC took. Despite the fact the neither the County nor the CCC have required permits for agricultural operations in the 40 years since the Coastal Act became law, the CCC findings state in part:

“… since certification in 1982, proposed changes in the intensity of the use of agriculturally zoned land, as well as agricultural grading into areas not previously farmed, required County-issued coastal permits. … (and prior to LCP certification through the Commission)…

Agriculture without coastal permits could be considered illegal:

“It is important to note that existing agricultural production activities are only considered ongoing agriculture if they are legal and allowable uses on agricultural land. The Commission’s conditionally certified definition is not intended to allow the continuation of any unpermitted or illegal activity on agricultural land because it has previously been occurring… if the extent or legality of agriculture production activities were to be contested, the Commission’s suggested modifications acknowledge that determinations of ongoing agricultural activities may need to be supported with evidentiary information…”

This is not the only problem with the Ag element of the LCP and its implementation plan. We would ask that everyone pay close attention to this process, not only to help Marin farmers and ranchers survive, but to avoid a dangerous precedent that could put all of California’s coastal agriculture at risk.

If you would like to learn more, visit: marincounty.org/depts/cd/divisions/planning/local-coastal-program/plans-and-docs?panelnum=6