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April, 2003

New Ag Proposals Giving Away The Farm By Elena Belsky

Marin is known for its love and protectiveness of open space and wild places. Yet sharing Marin's resources - balancing human desires and environmental needs - is not always easy and never simple.

Historically, Marin citizens have taken on an important stewardship role for preserving valued local habitat, industries and ways of life. Unfortunately, government officials, swayed as they may be by special interests or a desire to make a mark, don't always support enforcement of existing regulations and effective creation of new ones.

In recent years, there is a pattern of disturbing trends affecting the County, especially with respect to west Marin: lack of enforcement of septic regulations and associated monitoring for public and environmental health; claims of a tough rewrite of septic policies followed by public statements that they will not be enforced; adoption of Stream Conservation Area (SCA) ordinances that actually weaken the County General Plan (aka Countywide Plan) Environmental Quality Element; allowing development that disregards the Local Coastal Plan; and now, "streamlining the permit process" for agricultural uses. The common architect of most, if not all, of these is Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey.

The proposed changes, promoted by Supervisor Kinsey, to County agricultural zoning and ordinances will serve to further limit public and government input into, and oversight over, agricultural operation activities and open space uses. While the revisions will undoubtedly make agriculture industry development easier and cheaper, the price - reduced pubic input and regulatory oversight-carries greatly increased risks for public health, local natural habitat, and preservation of the rural character of west Marin.

Easier For Ag, Easier For Developers

Citizen groups are already expressing concerns about the potential of Supervisor Kinsey's new proposals to open agricultural lands to increased residential and industrial development, as well as additional environmental and community impacts. In response to public criticisms, the Board of Supervisors has postponed the public hearing on the new ordinances until April 29th.

In a letter to the Board of Supervisors on the subject, Executive Director of the Environmental Action Committee, Catherine Caufield wrote; "…we believe that some of these changes will have unintended consequences, including the proliferation of 'trophy homes' and hobby farms; an increase in wine-country style tourism; conversion of ranch land to commercial and industrial facilities; and greater economic pressure on a dwindling number of ranches."

The suggested zoning revisions would allow additional uses and development in all or some agricultural zones: Bed and breakfast inns, residential second units, retail sale and processing of ag products made on the property, home occupations, educational tours.

In addition, permit "streamlining" has already begun, with the Planning Department "waiving" of a Master Plan requirement for agricultural development-a critical element of the development and review process-effectively eliminating environmental reviews and the public input process. Agriculture is an industry, a way of life, and a business all at the same time -Marin residents cherish all of these aspects and want to see local agriculture remain strong. However, as with any other business under local, state and federal jurisdictions, local agriculture must, and should, comply with regulations designed to ensure a modicum of protection for our natural ecosystems.

Waiving environmental studies, public review and agency oversight, while allowing extra ancillary buildings, partially-related businesses and industrial uses, will inevitably produce greater, under-monitored and under-regulated impacts on land, water and communities. It will also increase the potential for "stealth" development. Dangers of Weakening The Regulations

While it seems incongruous with his stated intentions, in his years as Marin County Supervisor, Steve Kinsey's actions appear to have steadily and unswervingly been establishing precedents and regulations that will open west Marin to dramatically increased development. In their parts, these precedents and policy revisions are damaging the fabric of environmental protection and oversight; in their sum, they have the very real potential of harming Marin's environment and quality of life.

Recently, Kinsey has presented revisions to the Streamside Conservation Area (SCA) policy that loosen the protection for endangered species and habitat by adding discretionary language and loopholes. Doing so is dismantling protective provisions in the Marin County General Plan; ordinances and codes must agree with and follow Countywide Plan Policy - any divergence is not permitted under state planning codes. The simple fact is that the Countywide Plan is the County's guiding law - its SCA provisions are and have always been entirely enforceable, without promulgation of subordinate regulations.

Marin's Environmental Health Department has a notoriously poor history of monitoring and enforcement in protection of the public health and environment in recent years, particularly with respect to septic systems, as pointed out by the Marin Civil Grand Jury in each of the last three years. New policy revisions and programs are being written which supposedly "fix" the septic situation. While offering some technical clarification, the overall goal of public health and environmental protection is nowhere in sight.. At one public meeting in West Marin, Kinsey assured a crowd of homeowners that regulations pertaining to illegal building and updated septic system rules will not be enforced in West Marin. (see http;//www.coastalpost.com).

The common architect of all of these: supervisor Steve Kinsey.

More Detail On The Recent Proposals

Essentially, in the name of supporting local agricultural operations, Supervisor Kinsey is making a series of proposals for new zoning and ordinances that would blow open the proverbial barn doors to increased residential and industrial developments on agricultural properties. It would also create tremendous loopholes for any development claiming an agricultural use or element.

"Reducing red tape" is a misnomer for the radical elimination of public process and reasonable oversight regulations being proposed.

For example, the 800 acre "trophy ranch" planned for Nicasio by the Hyatt hotel family - proposed as a five-compound, multiple unit monstrosity of a development-is being justified by provision of a small grazing contract that qualifies as an agriculture use. Efforts of the highly-effective Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), and its excellent work protecting agriculture and open space, may be seriously hampered as "trophy" ranches and homes increase land costs. Conservation easements would become more costly, if available at all, in light of weakened zoning and ordinances.

There are many, far more appropriate ways to support local agriculture: buying Marin products; promoting local, organically produced products; community organizing and lobbying of food distributors to carry products; continued public outreach and education; volunteerism for agriculture/environmental projects; governmental and grant subsidies; and others.

Putting Things Into Perspective

Supervisor Kinsey's specific proposals for easing agriculture regulations and weakening zoning rules would cause long-range negative impacts. In general, rules that limit public and governmental oversight of any industry, even one as valued as Marin agriculture, should be considered extremely carefully and applied cautiously, mindful of the multi-dimensional aspects involved. Unfortunately, at this point, the drive to "ease up" on the agriculture industry seems to be taking center stage to the extent that environmental protections, public safety and the character of Marin communities are being shoved out of the theater.

Preserving the natural features of wetlands, open space, bays, creeks, endangered species, water quality… all take dedication and work, not only to prevent additional damage, but to attempt to heal past mistakes as well. Many groups are making significant efforts along these lines: equestrian management plans, agriculture pasture and pond management techniques, homeowner awareness of toxics, organic living, and creek restoration. While homeowners, businesses, and developers might at times feel that there are "onerous environmental regulations" associated with living and working in Marin County, it is a price we must all agree to pay for the privilege.

The public process is in place for good reason-it is right that special interest groups, politically-connected individuals, and wealthy developers must go before the people of Marin to justify their projects, and be judged by concerned members of our communities, as well as oversight agencies. If the Board of Supervisors succeeds in removing crucial review and oversight processes, it will diminish our ability to protect Marin County's quality of life.

 

 

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