Regulations over property near streams in Marin's unincorporated neighborhoods were approved by county planners Monday following debate from a disparate crowd.
The county Planning Commission acted on a 6-0 vote in late afternoon after making minor changes to a staff proposal that earlier drew criticism from both critics and advocates when a parade of speakers split along familiar lines. Commissioner Ericka Erickson was absent.
The controversial program passes to county supervisors for review on June 18.
The proposal aimed at protecting creekside habitat, wildlife and fisheries involves "stream conservation area" regulations applying to more than 3,000 parcels near streams. It spells out rules for building, or altering the landscape, near creek banks and establishes exemption, site review and special permit procedures.
The commission, after hearing almost two dozen speakers debate the plan pro and con during a morning session, returned in the afternoon to tweak a variety of details.
"It is so complicated," Commissioner Wade Holland observed of various setback requirements and rules. "Is there a way to simplify this some way?" There appeared no easy answer amid restrictions involving issues including creek banks, vegetation growth and city or rural locale.
The ordinance establishes development setbacks in "city-centered" urban areas that vary from 20 feet to 100 feet from the creek bank, with larger lots requiring bigger setbacks. [Editor's Note:Marnwood Park has 120' setback according to county data]. But in rural areas, setbacks of 100 feet are required regardless of lot size. Other issues involve setbacks near what staffers said was a limited number of "ephemeral streams" or wet weather drainages lined by stretches of riparian growth.
Commissioner Don Dickenson noted that setback requirements do not forbid activity, but rather establish the area in which special site review or permits are required in conventional district zones. In some areas, including Kent Woodlands, creekside development already is strictly regulated through design review procedures that are part of planned district zones.
The Salmon Protection and Watershed Network, San Geronimo Valley Planning Group and Marin Audubon Society indicated the latest version of the program was too weak, but the Marin Association of Realtors, San Geronimo Valley Stewards and Sleepy Hollow Homeowners Association called it too tough.
All things considered, "the ordinance doesn't do much for the creek," said Gordon Bennett of the salmon network, citing loopholes in the measure. Legislation intended to benefit stream habitat has generated "lots of angst in the public" but efforts to preserve endangered coho are not intended to target property owners, he added.
But Bob Figari of Woodacre said homeowners face a "fantasy" program based on imagined "ephemeral streams" that exist only after it rains, or streams that appear on maps but don't exist at all. "It's kind of like walking into a loony bin and trying to convince a guy who says he is Napoleon that he is not," Figari said of the county program. "Take our street out of the stream conservation plan."
Barbara Salzman, head of Marin Audubon, had a different vision. "We really support this ordinance and urge you to move ahead," she said. "We all have restrictions on our property," she said. "Nobody has free range to do what they want on their property."
Dan Stein, president of the Sleepy Hollow Homeowners Association, noted the program affects what people can do in their backyards. With the Sleepy Hollow neighborhood flanked by streams, site inspections would mean "there would be a biologist running up and down Butterfield Road daily," even though the streams there do not host spawning fish.
Stein urged a delay allowing more public reflection, and joined the salmon network in calling for a neighborhood by neighborhood "roll out" of the program, starting with San Geronimo where endangered salmon are at issue.
Jack Wilkinson, president of the Marin Association of Realtors, called the plan "deeply flawed," saying it is ambiguous, arbitrary and subject to interpretation. "The measure will have a negative impact on property values, property rights, underwriting, the marketability of properties and the local economy," he warned.
"You've taken a huge wide net and cast it over the county," said Curtis Kruger of Novato. "It's way too large and you're handling it way too fast."
Requirements for improvements in conservation areas include obtaining a county site review report from a consultant, and either an exemption or a "tier one" ministerial permit for minor work — or a more rigorous "tier two" permit that might involve a public hearing for projects deemed intrusive. In situations involving public safety, no review is necessary.
Permit fees, while still under review, could cost from $300 to $1,500, depending on what is at issue.
The ordinance is the result of years of effort focused in San Geronimo Valley, home of one of the state's most important runs of endangered coho salmon, and a region where building bans have blocked creekside development amid legal moves by the salmon protection network.
Despite months of work by planning staff and a series of public hearings on a tough creekside tree and brush ordinance that won the blessing of the Planning Commission, county supervisors balked and asked for revisions to accommodate creekside homeowners.
The salmon network filed suit, prompting Superior Court Judge Lynn Duryee last year to prohibit building outside existing structure footprints until new creekside habitat rules are in place. County officials have pledged to adopt a countywide program by June.