MARIN COUNTY'S NEWS
MONTHLY - FREE PRESS
(415)868-1600 - (415)868-0502(fax) - P.O. Box 31, Bolinas, CA, 94924
By Gordon Bennett of Inverness, marsh and path advocate
This is my personal story about what I saw as the County's 11th hour attempt to highjack a locally-desired 4 to 6 foot wide unpaved pathway between Inverness Park and Point Reyes and turn it into a County-desired 8 to 10 foot wide paved bikeway in the marsh of the to-be-renewed Tomales Bay Wetland. This sleight-of-hand allowed the County to claim that the Park Service was responsible for the County's own obligation for necessary non-vehicular transportation infrastructure strategies between the two areas. The County's threat was to hold up the Giacomini Marsh Restoration, one of the most important marsh restorations in the State, by putting at risk over $1.6M of its funding.
On the morning of June 27, I was at a hearing of the California State Lands Commission in Sacramento to support their confirmation of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Giacomini Marsh Restoration (aka Tomales Bay Wetland), which is a joint project of the Commission and the Park Service. I discovered that at 6:01 pm on the night before the hearing, a letter had been faxed to the Commission that was signed by both the Marin County Department of Public Works and the County Open Space District (aka "the Letter"). The Letter laid out a number of pseudo-legalistic arguments claiming that the FEIS was inadequate and that the Commission should not certify the Restoration to move forward. Why? Because the Restoration Plan did not locate a paved bikeway in the marsh.
Now why would the County want to put a paved bikeway into the marsh? The County Public Works Director was obviously caught off guard by recent questions on this matter, responding that the bikeway couldn't go along the shoulder of Levee Road (the section of Sir Francis Drake between Inverness Park and Pt Reyes Station) because it floods in wet weather and therefore the bikeway has to go in the marsh instead. Hello? The marsh where the Letter wanted to locate the bikeway is several feet lower in elevation than Levee Road. The FEIS notes that the Restoration will cause the marsh area to flood more often, but Levee Road to flood less often. Public Work's position contradicts common sense that in a flood, higher is better.
Similarly contradictory, the Open Space District issued a Draft Negative Declaration, 15 days prior to the Letter, for a trail project at the Bahia marsh restoration, which noted "The purpose of the project is to re-locate the trail away from the wetlands, which is consistent with Countywide Plan (CWP) Policy EQ TR-3.1: Locate trails away from sensitive habitat areas such as wetlands..." Yet just 15 days later, the Letter signed by the same Open Space District, threatened to hold up the Giacomini marsh restoration unless the bikeway was re-located into the wetlands.
The Letter contained other contradictions. It described the bikeway in the CWP maps as in the wetlands "along the southern boundary of Tomales Bay." Yet the County's own Trail plans (CWP Trail Map C-2) clearly shows the Pt. Reyes / Inverness bikeway running adjacent to Levee Road, not through the wetlands. No wonder the ranching community feels threatened by paths mapped by the County across their property...there's no telling where the final path will end up.
The Letter claimed that any other route than through the marsh was "infeasible." However, at the time the bikeway was put into the CWP along the shoulder of Levee Road, state law mandated that it had to be feasible in order to be included. The subsequent marsh restoration will only make that shoulder location even more feasible. Instead, the Letter's proposed location for the paved bikeway between the Green Bridge and Drakes View Drive would add almost 3 acres of pavement and amount to almost a third lane of Sir Francis Drake built in the wetlands.
The Letter argued that the bikeway must be in the marsh in order to support educational access. As anyone who attempted to watch shorebirds from the bikeway through Bothin marsh in Tam Junction can testify, dodging roadbikes while trying to enjoy the wetlands is at best a strained educational opportunity. A paved alternative transit route in the marsh could significantly reduce opportunities for wetland enjoyment and education. Furthermore, would roadbikers coming from Olema heading toward Inverness detour across the Green Bridge to access the county proposed bikeway trailhead in downtown Pt Reyes? I think not. The bikeway is a needed transportation infrastructure, but it is not a community pathway, nor a marsh visitor amenity, and the County has not planned it out well.
The Letter asserted that the FEIS precluded a possible future bridge at the dam site. Such a bridge might be a useful connection for a community pathway, depending on the overall pathway configuration and community input. Regardless, what the FEIS actually says (pg xlvii) is "While Alternative D does not include construction of a nonvehicular bridge, the Park Service would commit to working with the County of Marin in the future on additional public access facilities on the southern perimeter, including reevaluation of Levee Road and the Green Bridge, possible extension of a trail to Inverness Park, and/or construction of a non-vehicular bridge across Lagunitas Creek at the site of the old summer dam through a separate environmental compliance process."
The Letter argued that the FEIS did not account for the "cumulative impacts" of failing to build a bikeway in the wetlands. Yet County failed in the current CWP and continues to argue in the new dCWP that it is not necessary to account for the cumulative impact of construction near streams and wetlands. By the Letter's logic, cumulative impact studies are only needed to facilitate construction planned in environmentally sensitive habitat, but not to oppose such construction.
The Letter contradicted County bike planning elsewhere. Supervisor Kinsey recently organized a meeting about adding bike-friendly shoulders along the segment of Sir Francis Drake through Samuel P. Taylor State Park. At that meeting, I asked whether it might not be better for bike lanes to be upgraded along the parallel Cross-Marin Trail to get bikes off that dangerous and narrow segment. Supervisor Kinsey's response was that he would not force a bikeway off the road and through the State Park. Yet regarding the later segment of Sir Francis Drake along Levee Road, the Letter took the contradictory position and attempted to force a bikeway off the road and through the National Park.
And while the County was trying to push its bikeway obligation into the marsh, it was also surveying Sir Francis Drake and Levee Road adjacent to the marsh for repaving. Did the Park propose to help fund new bridges on Levee Road with wider road shoulders to accommodate bikes? Yes. Would the County's plan for repaving Levee Road include wider road shoulders for safer bike use? No.
The bottom of the County's 2/14 letter to the Park Service regarding path alternatives notes "there is no agreement on division of maintenance responsibility for that may exist or be built in the right of way [ie along Levee Road], the county has not budgeted for capital improvements." In short, the County failed to commit anything to path while the Park was planning the Marsh Restoration.
Bike access throughout the County and along Sir Francis Drake in particularly is difficult and dangerous. It needs to be greatly improved. But the County has committed virtually its entire bike and pedestrian funding to East Marin. There are rationales for this, including greater population and state and federal money strings related to congestion relief that are more easily satisfied in East Marin. Overlooked in West Marin, however, is visitation that is much greater than the resident count. But rather than bring its own money and planning effort to West Marin in order to satisfy a community need, the County tried to hold the Park's wetland restoration hostage and extract 100% of the cost out of the Park Service.
Do County Departments even have the authority on their own to write letters threatening the State Lands Commission and the Park Service without their letters being approved by the Board of Supervisors? Or were they just following orders to sign the Letter initiated by someone else? The Public Works Director's own name was misspelled on the Letter. Yet this Letter, full of contradictions, went out at the 11th hour and put the most important wetland restoration in the state at risk.
Luckily, at the State Lands Commission hearing, the Commissioners immediately saw through the County's game. Unprompted, several Commissioner spoke against the Letter and then proceeded to immediately and unanimously certify the Marsh FEIS. Hopefully the County will now drop its opposition and move on to a more earnest consideration of how the path between Inverness and Pt Reyes might be planned and funded.
The Sierra Club, the Community Pathways Group, and a substantial number Point Reyes / Inverness residents support some kind of pathway. We have differences about where it should be located, where its trailheads should be, and which section should be built first. Will some of the path likely need to go on NPS wetlands in segments where the County right-of-way is too constricted? Probably, but how much can that be minimized? Do we need a bridge over Lagunitas Creek? Certainly, but where? Do Pt Reyes residents have different perspectives than Inverness residents? Sure.
What all of us, including the County and the Park Service, need to do is to sit down and commit to a comprehensive planning process that results in an agreed-upon plan. Once we have that plan, we can build path segments in the agreed-upon priority as funding becomes available. And we can develop a plan to get that funding. What the path doesn't need is more political gamesmanship. I understand that recently the Park has sent a letter to Supervisor Kinsey re-committing to the planning process that it previously outlined in the Marsh FEIS. That's a great first step toward having a real bike and pedestrian path connecting Inverness Park and Pt Reyes Station. The County should follow suit. Now.
It is past time for our political leaders to put a stop to these 11th hour letters, after close of the public process, claiming that the Parks studies are incomplete, blaming the Park, and threatening to hold up the Park unless further concessions can be wrung out. This is not the first time a political shakedown of the Park has been attempted nor will it be the last. This is more than just poor planning and management by crisis. It is crisis creation that is an abuse of public process and an attempt to garner political favors. That may make certain constituents happy this time around, but absent a fair and open planning process, who can be sure who or what project will be on the sharp end of an 11th hour letter the next time around?
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