Marin County Board of Supervisors to Conduct Public Hearing April 24 on Proposed New California Coastal Commission Permit Requirements

Written By: Gary Quackenbush
Published: April 1, 2018

After nearly a decade of discussions, hearings and workshops, additional modifications were made to the California Coastal Commission’s (CCC) decisions following its November 2, 2016 public workshop that have increased farmer and rancher anxiety.

According to Kevin Lunny, President of the Marin Farm Bureau, “Following the November 2016 meeting we came away believing that the CCC had made a final decision and would confine permits largely within five categories of land use, including: Terracing land for agriculture production, preparation or planting of land for viticulture and cannabis, along with preparing or planting land with an average slope exceeding 15% — or even involving grading the land (defined as regarding engineering/construction/landscaping activity) as opposed to routine or ongoing agriculture. To further expand on an explanation of “grading,” it is now defined as any excavation, stripping, cutting, filling or stockpiling of soil, material or any combination thereof.

He said, “We were surprised to see a CCC staff letter dated July 14, 2017 reinterpreting the Commission’s actions.”

These staff changes included requirements for farmers to obtain permits for what used to be “ongoing agriculture” that could now be reclassified as “a change in development” – such as adding another pipe to an existing irrigation system, or switching from grazing to crop production (a permit requirement that has already been reversed).

Concerns have also arisen over the ambiguity of terms, such as the true meaning and interpretation of “legally established existing agriculture,” or “actions that intensify the use of land and water,” or “what payments or reimbursements are to be allowed for not for profit educational tours.”

Without consistent standards and definitions in place, a number of permit determinations are left up to the judgment and discretion of the CCC staff on a case-by-case basis. These staff changes are not consistent with the CCC’s approved modifications to the CCC-LCPA (Local Coastal Program) agreement made on November 2, 2016 and should be eliminated.

Marin County’s Board of Supervisors next public hearing to discuss recent modifications to the CCC-LCPA plan is set for April 24 at the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael, starting at 1:30 p.m. in room 330 on the third floor.

“I encourage Marin Farm Bureau members and others wishing to preserve agriculture in coastal areas to attend the April 24 meeting. With some 100 to 150 seats in the room, there should be plenty of space for interested Farm Bureau members to come and voice your concerns about these proposed permitting policies,” said Lunny.

“The Marin Board of Supervisors is responsible for the County’s Local County Plan (LCP) and should inform the CCC that it is against changes proposed by its staff. If the CCC is unwilling to do so, the Board of Supervisors could go back to the original 1981 LCP plan as an alternative.”

Under proposed modifications that would require a Coastal Permit are actions NOT considered part of ongoing agriculture that “intensify” the use of water, such as construction of new water sources (including a new or expanded well or surface impound), as well as the installation or extension of irrigation systems. Such requirements are not absolute. Exceptions are possible, if the County determines that the activity qualifies for a de minimis waiver under Sections 22.68.070 or excluded under Categorical Exclusion Order 81-2 or 81-6.

Lunny said, “We made compromises to help balance the discussion, such as grudgingly agreeing to this five-point series of circumstances where a permit could be required. But according to recent CCC determinations, we are not allowed to add new technology, introduce better farm practices and adopt different techniques that would improve agriculture if they did not exist previously without obtaining a permit.”

Under the new proposed criteria, permits would also be required for actions that “intensify” the use of land or water. This new, ambiguous standard could result in permit requirements to do almost anything, said Lunny.

Ongoing agricultural production activities not requiring Coastal Permits include crop rotation, plowing, tilling, planting, harvesting and seeding – provided that these activities have not been expanded into never-before-used areas.

“With the new language added by CCC staff, all bets are off and CCC can make a determination on a case by case basis if even ongoing agriculture requires a permit. In other words, maintaining existing practices and operating procedures avoids the need for most, if not all, permits – but does not allow for growth, modernization, improved output or efficiencies.”

“If a farmer was growing strawberries on the coast for 15 to 20 years, but not prior to the Coastal Act, this is seen as a change in use and could require a permit or waiver,” Lunny observed.

Standing still and not being able to progress and move forward is not an option, he said.

“In essence, the CCC staff is saying just about anything new or different that you do in ag on the coast is development, so the intent is to only allow and lock in what farmers and ranchers are doing today under the heading of existing use. Taken to its extreme, such a policy will inhibit present day and future farmers from making a living, or being able to compete with their counterparts in in-land areas not encumbered by such permit restrictions.”

He pointed out that having a monoculture — for anyone who understands environmental effects — is not as good as having smaller micro ag projects on each farm for diversity and to replenish the soil. But according to recent CCC staff actions, we are not allowed to change or add new technology, advanced farm practices and other changes without a permit. Maintaining the status quo is not good enough. We have to take care of the land or we are out of business.”

The CCC modifications initially added conversion of grazing area to crop production to the list of activities not considered to be ongoing agriculture. The CCC deleted this provision in response to objections raised by Marin County Board of Supervisors and the agricultural community. However, the revised findings state that, “Those conversions [of grazing areas to row crops] that would intensify the use of land or water, or require grading, would need a Coastal Permit.”

“The reversal of the CCC on the conversion of grazing land to crop production based on public input and collective action shows that the Commission is willing to listen to farmer and rancher concerns. Consistency in policy making is essential,” Lunny observed.

The Marin County Board of Supervisors’ document discussing CCC LCPA recent modifications states that, “The revised staff findings provide no clear, objective or predictable standard for determining when a conversion (from grazing to row crops) would constitute such an intensification. Clarity and certainty are essential to the fair and effective administration of policies and are vital to facilitating compliance by the ranchers and farmers being regulated by the County. This is why the County set out clear and measurable criteria for defining “intensification” in its policy.”

Lunny said, “Clearly, this lack of agreement between the CCC and its staff has caused widespread confusion among farmers and ranchers about what they can and cannot do.”

Using Pt. Reyes (Coastal Agricultural Production Zone or C-APZ) and Marin County as an initial test case, if misinterpreted CCC rules are allowed to stand, these permit requirements could be the precedent mandated for all those farming in designated coastal areas of the state along an 840-mile shoreline within the CCC’s jurisdiction.

“In my opinion, and that of many others, we should not be required to get Coastal Commission permits to farm, this stops us in our tracks. Ag is a dynamic industry. We must be able to respond to market factors, effects of climate change and other variables. If the CCC says you can’t do virtually anything different without a permit, our ability to take actions will be a long, onerous process, since it could take a year or two — or even more — to go through the permitting cycle and at a cost that could reach tens of thousands of dollars.”

Kevin Lunny has a ranch at Pt. Reyes. He wanted to put a pipeline on a water trough, and spent a year and a half trying to get CCC’s approval.

“I eventually gave up. It was too painful. I can see why so many in the Farm Bureau are saying these permit requirements are wrong on so many levels. It should be important to the CCC to be concerned about saving and preserving local economies and industries, such as ag. With NRCS Environmental Quality Improvement Projects (EQIP), plans that include developing new water sources for cows and fences to protect wetlands such as these are the right things to do.”

He said no one among our farmers and ranchers disagrees with resource protection. “It is in their best interest to preserve and protect vital resources. However, if our members are hamstrung by permits and the inability to stay competitive with inland farms and ranches, we will not survive.”

Lunny added, “We are down to short strokes (of the pen) before restrictive policies are put in place, with only a few points remaining to be negotiated, or reconsidered. That is why it is so important for us to be present and weigh-in on April 24, our last chance to convince the Marin County Board of Supervisors to do the right thing. As of May 2, 2018, decisions are final.”

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