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May, 2007



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County Wide Plan vs Local Ranchers
By Wade Holland, Marin County Planning Commissioner

Is it fair for the County to limit the size of houses that can be built on agricultural properties? This was, predictably, a hot-button topic at the County Planning Commission's recent hearings on the Agriculture section of the new Countywide Plan. Another contentious issue for the agricultural community was the proposed trails across their lands.
Ranchers and growers turned out at the hearings in unprecedented numbers to press for an array of changes they wanted to see in the County's land use "blueprint." They took their cues from a detailed, footnote-laden "brief" prepared by the Marin County Farm Bureau that covered topics as fine-tuned as organic de-worming of cattle and as broad-brush as a request (not granted) for complete exemption of agriculture from all development restrictions.

Thirty years ago, continuation of productive agriculture in our county was threatened by pressures to subdivide West Marin into tens of thousands of residential home sites - the iconic "little houses made of ticky-tacky." In response, Marin County pioneered A-60 zoning, which has prevented wholesale conversion of farms and ranches into residential subdivisions.

While subdivision is no longer a significant threat here, no one at the time A-60 was introduced would have anticipated today's threat - conversion of ranches, even ones hundreds of acres in size, into estate properties.

West Marin's rural beauty coupled with its proximity to San Francisco makes it highly attractive for purchase of an entire ranch for use as a single home site (perhaps even just as a second home site!) and to build on it a super-sized residential compound surrounded by acres of private recreational facilities.

When this happens, agricultural production on the land typically disappears.

House size limits
In response, the Planning Commission is recommending limits on the amount of residential development that can be permitted on a property that is zoned for agricultural use. We believe that limits will make these properties substantially less desirable for conversion to residential estates.

The recommended cap on total residential development on a parcel is generally 6000 sq ft, but in some cases for long-time, well established ranching families this could be increased to 8500 sq ft. The maximum size of any individual house would be set at 3000, 4000, or 6000 sq ft, depending on a complicated set of circumstances and discretionary approvals.

The ag community generally (although not unanimously) opposed the home size limits. Ranchers argued that it was unfair that their properties be subject to caps while similar restrictions are not applied elsewhere in the County.

There are two problems with this argument. The first is the assumption that there are no home size restrictions in other communities. In addition to a variety of limitations that apply throughout the County, such as height limits, setback requirements, floor area ratios, and the like, some areas of unincorporated Marin have community plans that limit the size of new residences. One is Tam Valley, where there is a cap on house size on hillside lots.

A more important consideration is that you can't compare what is permitted on agriculturally-zoned land with what is permitted on residentially-zoned parcels. Agricultural zoning means that the primary intended purpose of the land is that it be used for agricultural production. While it is appropriate for residences to be built on ag land, it is not appropriate that the residential development overshadow the agricultural use of the land.

In other words, it is desirable that some ag land be set aside for residential use because an on-site home is typically an essential part of a viable ag operation. Homes for family members who actually work on a ranch or farm are related to the agricultural zoning and they enhance the community's agricultural viability. The purpose of the house size limit is to strike a proper balance between the residential use and the ag use, and to ensure that real agriculture remains the focus, as intended by the ag zoning.

We feel we have built in enough flexibility so that an existing ranching family can provide comfortable homes for as many as three generations of family members. Incidentally, the limits do not apply to any nonresidential structures that are directly part of the agricultural operation or to housing for farm workers.

Proposed trails
I tend to agree with our ag community that there is no compelling reason to use maps in the Countywide Plan to show proposed trails on private property (without the property owner's consent). I voted against the decision of the Commission majority to represent proposed trails with a dashed line on the maps. I felt there were better ways to handle proposed trails than with dashed lines, because such lines suggest an actual route when in fact no specific route has been surveyed.

That said, government does have an obligation to place into the public record the fact that a trail has been officially proposed, especially when the trail, if ever developed, would have to cross someone's private property.

Note, however, that Marin County has no history of using eminent domain to obtain trails from unwilling property owners, and the possibility that it would ever do so seems to me to be pretty remote.

More important, perhaps, is that the courts have made clear that government cannot require a property owner to provide land for a trail as a condition of approval of a development application.

An exception to this is when there is a direct connection between the planned development and the need for a trail. An example would be where a property owner applies to erect a building that would block off an existing, legally dedicated trail. In this circumstance, we would have an obligation to the public to require that the owner provide an acceptable alternate location for the trail.

Countywide Plan hearings
The Planning Commission concludes its hearings on the Countywide Plan in the first part of May. The final EIR for the Plan will be released on June 4, and beginning on June 11 we will conduct three hearings on the adequacy of the EIR. We will also take testimony on final changes people would like to see incorporated into the Plan itself. For details of the hearings, visit

Our concluding meeting on the subject will be on July 23, when we will act on recommending that the Board of Supervisors certify the EIR and adopt the Countywide Plan. The Board is scheduled to make its decision on accepting the Countywide Plan in October.

Wade Holland, 415-669-1631
Born in Los Angeles, raised in Southern California

BA in Political Science, Whittier College, 1957

Resident of Inverness with wife Sandra since 1970

Director, Inverness Public Utility District, 1980-1985

General Manager, Inverness Public Utility District, 1985-2001

Appointed to Marin County Planning Commission in February 2004

Elected Chair of the County Planning Commission, January 2007

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