Park Owners' Case Goes to Coastal Commission
The battle for Lawson's Landing on California's coast flares again Wednesday (July 13) as partisans fire another round of salvos over the future of the 960-acre site at Dillon Beach, home to the largest stretch of sand dune habitat in private ownership on the coast — as well as the region's biggest coastal campground, the Marin Independent Journal reported.
The state Coastal Commission will convene at the Marin County Civic Center, where a capacity crowd is expected to renew arguments that pit the need for environmental protection of unique coastal resources against the blue-collar Dillon Beach resort that sprang up without permits and has provided coastal access and recreation for generations of Californians.
In a 156-page report, the commission staff essentially embraces the overall scope of a plan approved by county supervisors a year ago. But the report recommends cutting camp spaces by about 15%, and it adds numerous restrictions, conditions and time limits that could curb development further — and will prove costly even if resort owners Michael Lawson and Carl Vogler raise improvement funds by selling a 465-acre conservation easement.
Because the project involves a collision of affordable ocean access with resource preservation, both goals of the state Coastal Act, the commission staff invoked "conflict resolution policies" that tighten a county master plan for the tract in order to protect and restore the environment while allowing what it called "important lower cost visitor-serving customer access and recreation opportunities."
The result, according to Tom Lai, assistant director of the county's Community Development Agency, is a proposal that is "in the ballpark" outlined by the county, but one that imposes more rules, regulations and restrictions. "It's a different version of the song," he said.
Although conditions provide some flexibility, the state staff recommends the commission sign off on 417 recreational vehicle and tent spaces and 229 year-round travel trailer spaces. Depending on whether conditions including berms and setbacks are met, that could be as many as 120 fewer spaces overall than envisioned by the county.
It also calls for store, parking, fuel, mooring, boat repair and sales, waste system and road improvements. About 465 acres would be set aside in a conservation easement, development elsewhere limited to 43 acres, and restrictions imposed near dune and wetland areas along with a dune restoration and other habitat improvement programs including the closure of several roads.
- If a new wastewater treatment and disposal system is not installed in three years, the resort must cease all uses that depend on 127 septic systems now in operation — a stipulation that essentially would shut down the operation.
- Owners of recreational vehicles equipped with drains could not live in them for more than 90 days a year, and a maximum of 30 days during the summer, and be required to rent them out for 270 days. Overnight stays in recreational vehicles and tent sites would be limited to 10 consecutive nights. Rentals would be handled by a campground coordinator.
- Lawson's Landing must submit within six months, "or additional time" as the commission staff allows, a dozen detailed planning documents including a final layout plan, a camping management plan, a resource protection and restoration plan, a wetlands and dunes plan, a grazing management plan, a visitor-serving travel-trailer plan, a septic system inspection plan, a traffic management plan, as well as plans for hazard response, trails, landscaping, grading and stormwater management.
Lawson, who is worried that restrictions and improvement requirements are so expensive they could scuttle the business in spite of camping and trailer revenue of almost $2 million a year, said the state plan provides some "wiggle room." He said the 20-year project depends on a variety of revenue sources — including camping and lease fees, bank loans and more than $5 million in easement money from the National Resources Conservation Service — to pay for improvements such as the $2 million wastewater treatment program.
Officials are girding for battle are various groups, including the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, which appealed the county plan to the state commission. It has issued a call to arms on its website: "The commissioners will decide what to do about the unpermitted development at Lawson's Landing, from camping on wetlands to substandard sewage disposal, which threatens the environment and public health," the committee reported. "The coastal commissioners need to hear from you at this meeting!"
Catherine Caufield, an ex-director of the committee who has led the charge to limit beach development plans, called the commission staff proposal "an interesting and complex report and we are looking at it," adding, "I'm sure there can be a project that includes camping out there."
Lawson's Landing's website also seeks to rally supporters, saying, "We are asking everyone who loves to camp, fish, boat, and spend time at Lawson's Landing to take the time to show your support by attending the Coastal Commission hearing in San Rafael."
Among the resort boosters will be Richard Shelden of Petaluma, who retired as a Marin County deputy sheriff after 31 years, bought a trailer for $16,300 and spent about as much to fix it up. Shelden, a member of the Alliance of Permanent Trailers who pays $400 a month rent, called the plan to limit use of his trailer "unconscionable," adding the overall plan "will break Lawson's back financially."
Shelden is among generations of Californians who have flocked to the area to fish, swim and frolic since the Depression. The complex developed without permits into an affordable coastal recreational oasis sporting a sand-mining operation beyond rows of ramshackle aluminum trailers and expansive meadows that host a summer surge of recreational vehicles and tent camps.
"Because most of the existing development on the site has been determined to be unpermitted, the commission must consider the application as though the development had not occurred," the state commission report said. At the same time, the report added, officials must acknowledge the project provides "needed lower cost visitor serving public access and recreation including coastal-dependent water oriented activities of extremely high statewide significance that is mandated by the Coastal Act."