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September, 2007



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Ranching no longer....?
By Jeanette M. Pontacq

Driving along California Highway One northbound from Stinson Beach to Olema, you pass a Victorian ranch house on the left. Because it is not at a natural stop in the road, this boarded up ranch house will probably be left to rot, as have other buildings on public lands, not even gussied up for the tourists in the coming years. Is this a sign of things to come in West Marin?

Origins of the 'Natural Systems & Agriculture Element' of the Countywide Plan Update

A broad base of Coastal Post readers has commented on last month's Perfect Storm article, suggesting that the vast majority of the onerous, ranch-killing, property-devaluing restrictions on grass-based agriculture have come from both Robert Berner, executive director of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) and Steve Kinsey, supervisor of the mostly-urban-voting District 4.

Berner was one of the original fourteen members of the Working Group for the creation of the Natural Systems and Agriculture element of the Countywide Plan Update (CWP). Mr. Berner is regularly considered by County officials (as led by Supervisor Kinsey), as well as categorized by the press, as a 'representative' of West Marin ranching. With all due respect, Mr. Berner is an attorney, not a rancher, and MALT is not an agriculture operation providing non-partisan representation of ranchers, but a large, multi-million dollar real estate appraisal and acquisition business.

Legally and in all fairness, the Working Group should have included representation from production agriculture. It didn't! Of the fourteen originally-named members of this Working Group, only two of them were ranchers, and neither was able to participate in the entire process. Ellen Straus, a dairywoman and co-founder of MALT, died in 2002, and George Grossi, a dairyman, had to excuse himself due to illness. No replacements were ever permitted, even though representatives from the ranching community applied for inclusion in the Working Group and were turned down! WHY? Further, some other Working Group members have conflicting public agendas that make them inappropriate authors of the CWP, or impartial judges of the continued viability of ranching in West Marin.

Even if we believe that MALT is a good organization to which many of us have contributed serious monies, the fact remains that a number of the new restrictions (pushed by MALT) contained in the new CWP will most likely push many West Marin ranchers to the point where MALT can come along with a cheap financial bailout. At the same time, other programs in the CWP update will drastically lower the value of ranch lands in West Marin, giving non-profit MALT the ability to purchase easements on those properties more easily and, as you will see below, more cheaply. All this will be done at the expense of the ranchers and farmers. Conflict of interest?

Historically, when MALT negotiates a conservation easement with a landowner, a cash value is figured into the contract to compensate the landowner for agreeing to retire the development potential on a property - the more allowable housing that is given up in the easement, the greater the compensation. There is also a contractual dollar figure paid to the landowner who agrees to restrict the size of existent and future dwellings. But under this new CWP's residential square footage limits, these property rights are taken without any compensation to the landowner!

When the A-2 zoning was changed to A-60 zoning a few decades ago, financial concessions were offered to ranchers because the County then recognized that A-60 zoning devalued their private land. WITH THE NEW CWP UPDATE, NO COMPENSATION OF ANY KIND IS OFFERED THIS TIME FOR DEVALUING THEIR LANDS. It seems to just be an out and out forced taking of rural land value by the urban-based County, and a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Fifth and Fourteenth amendments providing for just compensation and equal protection under the law.

Frankly, if the programs in the Countywide Plan Update lead to their logical conclusions, it seems that MALT and the government (Berner and Kinsey) could end up controlling the majority of ag lands in West Marin!

More on the Kinsey/MALT connection
A look at MALT's Board of Directors shows that even the board itself does not wholly represent agriculture. Despite MALT's own bylaws requiring 51% of the board to be in production agriculture, only eight of 17 members are ranchers or farmers, and not all of those are even landowners. The remainder of the board consists of lawyers, conservationists, businesspeople and a politician - namely Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey. Legal opinions solicited by the CP have suggested that Mr. Berner should have recused himself from any involvement at all in writing the CWP, and from campaigning for it, to avoid conflicts of interest. They have also suggested that Supervisor Kinsey's participation in the historically closed-door meetings of the MALT Board should allow for open and public meetings of the non-profit with such a large influence on County actions, whether the Brown Act is being technically violated or not.

Interestingly, Berner's wife was Steve Kinsey's campaign manager and both Kinsey and Berner are together on the Board of MALT and now take the lead in influencing what happens to ranchers via the CWP. Both Burner and Kinsey seem to have serious conflicts of interest as they direct and support these financially ruinous restrictions on grass-based agriculture in Marin.

MALT is considered by many to be a classic 'sacred cow.' Although I support its classic goals, the present process is distressingly secretive and there seem to be many alliances formed for agendas the public knows nothing about.

How 90%+ of Marin Ag will be Done In
The 151 pages of the 'Natural Systems & Agriculture Element' of the new CWP have been analyzed by agricultural experts in and outside of West Marin and described as containing inaccurate and inconsistent science, which, if implemented via the Plan, can easily result in the end of grass-based ranching in the County. Here are just 2 of those proposed restrictions:

House Restrictions on Ranch Properties: Supervisor Kinsey and MALT's Berner have both publicly stated that they believe it is important to limit non-agricultural development on ranches because 'larger' houses 'destroy' family farms and result in the demise of production agriculture. Kinsey and Berner have based their premise of 'harm' to agriculture on their own agendas. The restrictions are supposedly justified by a report entitled Marin County Agricultural Economic Analysis by Strong Associates, used as the basis for the entire section of the CWP dealing with house size limits. The report is seriously flawed, containing faulty science and misleading arguments, according to non-partisan analysts. The Marin Independent Journal called Strong's conclusion - that limiting the size of collective ranch homes would mean that the land would stay more productive in terms of farm-related revenue-'simplistic' and 'unfair.

The truth is that family ranch houses everywhere have been historically larger because of big, multi-generational families needed to work the land. Contrary to the prevailing myth, upon which the entire section on preserving agriculture in the CWP is based, there has not been a single instance where a large estate home has resulted in the demise of production agriculture. Instead, wonderful estate developments like that of Nan McEvoy's organic olive operation are proof that an ag operation and lots of residential square footage can thrive together. Under the new CWP, they would not be allowed! With the aggregate cap put on non-agricultural buildings via the CWP, long-time family ranchers will have difficulty providing housing for extended family members and the intergenerational transfer of the ranches. Prospective new agriculturalists will be discouraged from establishing themselves here in expensive Marin.

If the present restrictions on ranches are approved within the new CWP, farm families may just finally give up once they realize they cannot use family labor of sons and daughters to live on the land, raise their families and do the necessary work....or they cannot get sufficient loans. Financially stressed, ranchers will find themselves in a situation where they need to sell at rock-bottom prices. Will MALT then step in to 'help out' the rancher, paying for his 'development rights,' paying less because the ranch will be worth less under these restrictions?

At least two Marin supervisors have publicly expressed their opinion that no house, anywhere in urban OR rural Marin, should be of a large size. Yet the CWP contains limits only on ag-zoned properties, most of which are sprawling ranches in West Marin, where the average size of a ranch is 800 acres, in contrast to the average <1/4 of an acre size lot of urban homes, and where lot line setbacks, view and sunlight obstruction, and other issues common in the suburbs, don't apply! If they want to push for smaller homes, it seems more logical to start with the 101 Corridor rather than the ranchers of West Marin!

House size restrictions have other financially devastating implications. Appraisers and lenders have already stated publicly that the CWP restrictions as presently written will lower the overall worth of the ranch lands, resulting in lowered collateral value to borrow against. The new inability for ranchers to borrow short-term working funds would become a very real problem that could ultimately end in their inability to continue ranching. Ranchers are always 'on the edge,' needing temporary loans for feed and other things. Once the loans dry up as the land is devalued by the CWP, ranches will dry up too. This scenario also makes it easier for MALT to purchase the development rights, and even ultimately take title itself or via a proxy. No rancher can be forced to ranch in the face of personal financial loss and the inability to include family within the operation.

Trails Across Private Ranches: The first iteration of the Countywide Plan Update (CWP) showed both new 'existing' and new 'proposed' trails across private ranch properties that had never before been seen on any maps, including the existing 1994 Countywide Plan. Landowners were outraged! When they asked the planning department staff how those 'suddenly-appearing' trails came to be drawn on the map, they were told by a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) specialist on the staff, who was tasked with digitizing the maps (etc), that Steve Kinsey himself had suggested them. Kinsey had been spotted over the preceding years hiking out on private ranches without the permission of the owners. One can now assume that he was scoping out his own private vision of a new trail system, adding his 'wish list' of proposed 'trails' on the CWP maps! Since then, Supervisor Kinsey has magnanimously agreed to remove some new trails that had not already been contained in the 1994 Countywide Plan, but not all. Three regional trails also remain a concern for private landowners.

The California Coastal Plan (CCP) is a state legislated trail from the Mexican border to the Oregon border, along the coast (see, with the PR arm of the State inviting the public to 'come on down' to walk on the coast along the length of California. The California Coastal Conservancy's pamphlet entitled "Completing the California Coastal Trail" contains language specifically providing for the protection and respect for "natural habitats, cultural and archaeological features, private property rights, neighborhoods and agricultural operations along the way." But Marin County has chosen to align the CCT on private ranch lands all along its own coast and bay. If you look closely at the CCT map, you can see an interesting easterly diversion along the shore of Tomales Bay. It turns out to be Audubon Canyon's Cypress Grove! If the county respects and protects its birds, it should provide the same respect and protection to its agricultural landowners! Walking along Cypress Grove does not pose the danger of importing Foot and Mouth Disease from the shoes of hikers, but walking on the grazing ranches most certainly does!

One case of FMD could wipe out the entire grass-based sector of Marin's agricultural economy, which currently comprises 94% of the value of Marin's agriculture. The danger of contamination is so great that even the Sierra Club, the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin (EAC), and the Audubon Society have acknowledged it and say that trails should not cross private ranch lands. MALT's own Hikes & Tours will not allow anyone to participate who has traveled out of the country in the preceding ten days for this very reason. Nonetheless, Supervisor Kinsey (the only official 'decider' for West Marin) seems to want the regional trails, even if they cross private ranch lands, period. The trails seem to please Kinsey's urban constituency, who know or seem to care little of what keeps grass-based ranching alive.

Public trails on private lands need only a small percentage of trail users to be jerks to ruin the relationship. Livestock gates left open, terrorizing animals, garbage thrown onto private lands, dogs, noise pollution, fires, and more....none of this should be forced on private ranchers or landowners without compensation. But, of course, under the CWP there is NO compensation or indemnity for anything that happens. If disease is brought onto a ranch, for example, the rancher has no recourse as he sees his animals die, and his operation and that of his neighbors ruined.

Second and third problems are the Ridge Trail and the Bay Trail. The concepts of both are pretty much analogous to the CCT. Bottom line is that NO public trail should be forced onto private land, ranchers and landowners say. Plus, it's against the law to require it. Mr. Kinsey obviously wants to ignore the Nollan case, as adjudicated by the United States Supreme Court, which will probably throw any attempt to 'take' private lands into the courts for years and cost the County a lot of money. Unfortunately, it will also cost private family ranchers a lot of money, and ranchers cannot just use public funds to pay legal bills, as can Kinsey.

The Face of 'New' Ag in West Marin
For many, the efficient Helge Hellberg, Executive Director of Marin Organic in Point Reyes Station, is one of the faces of "New' Ag in West Marin. Mr. Hellberg is a marketing specialist, and a good one. That said, it should also be mentioned that there is a growing division within the organic community on 'where' local organics is going and its relation to its original definition. The many questions about the soul of organics are not being openly discussed, which needs to change, many say.

In the meantime, over 90% of all agriculture in Marin County is grass-based (i.e. cows, goats, sheep, horses etc). The hard truth is that science in veterinary medicine has not progressed to the point where US ranchers can de-worm an animal without using a non-organic product, thus closing the official door to being 'organic.' To not de-worm the animals would result in their discomfort and ill health. Thus, beef from local 'natural' operations such as Marin Sun Farms or Chileno Valley Ranch, for instance, are certified as grass-fed because the livestock has not been given antibiotics or supplemental hormones, whereas the Strauss milk operation can have its milk certified organic. The difference is that one can certify pastureland as organic (and since the Straus cows eat the organic grass, the milk is organic), but if those same cows were harvested for meat, it would not be organic meat if the animals had been de-wormed. The bottom line is that most grass-based agriculture in Marin cannot be certified as organic, through no fault of the ranchers.

The 'New" face of Ag in West Marin should include people like Nan McEvoy, with her fabulous acreage of olive trees, Italian olive press and stunning estate building complexes and gardens. And there are others who are creating enclaves for organic specialty items, like goat milk or cheese, much of it sold through the upscale Tomales Bay Foods and Farmer's Markets. It's Janet Brown's All Star Organics heirloom tomatoes and more. It's also organic farmers in Bolinas, like Peter Martinelli and Warren Weber, with a healthy marketing savvy to sell beyond Marin.

Almost across the board, however, organic operations of specialty cheeses, vegetables and fruits are relatively small, representing in total a minor percentage of agricultural output in Marin. The issues of what has happened to the organics movement are not part of this article, but would make an interesting analysis at a later time. Instead, know that the main 'vision' of agriculture held by most urban residents of Marin now has changed from large, family-owned grazing operations to focus on the small, individually-owned organic specialty growers. Unfortunately, the CWP contains restrictions preventing the introduction of new agriculturalists here period, organic or otherwise.

Politics as Usual?
Supervisor Kinsey has stated that he is not going to change his mind on the basic concepts of trails and house size restrictions on West Marin ranchers, and has suggested (we are told) that the ranchers take their case to the other four supervisors. Unfortunately, this Board of Supervisors seems to have an 'understanding' among themselves to almost always vote according to the wishes of the supervisor of the district within which the issue occurs. Thus, the other supervisors will likely vote the way Kinsey wants on this. Just as Kinsey will vote, in return, for whatever personal need is expressed by other supervisors for their districts. That is historical and an every-day reality in Marin politics. It's not democratic, not fair and not good for the public, but that's what happens.

Kinsey is fond of pointing out in the press that he has more voters in the tiny Canal District of San Rafael than he does in all of West Marin. What a slap in the face to the West Marin constituents he often claims to champion! The rural area of West Marin, once prized under Gary Giacomini, has become just a political and colorful backwater, good for photo ops. Does Mr. Kinsey realize he's is loosing his 'friend of ag' image? Many ranchers see him as the enemy of ag now. Does he care?

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