Showdown Looms for Popular California RV Park

July 9, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Aerial view of Lawson's Landing, Marin County, Calif.

Aerial view of Lawson's Landing, Marin County, Calif.

California state officials joined the battle for Lawson’s Landing on Thursday (July 8), as the California Coastal Commission toured the 940-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 and trailer park.

Commissioners appeared at the sprawling complex for a whirlwind, 90-minute visit, arriving two hours late after a bus scheduling mix-up forced them to carpool from Santa Rosa, where they were meeting, to the blue-collar Pacific beach resort on the lip of Tomales Bay, the Marin Independent Journal reported.

They were greeted by about two dozen environmental activists and campground advocates who tagged along as Charles Lester, senior deputy director, and John Dixon, a staff ecologist, talked about the land, its history and a master plan of improvements approved by the county.

After a commission edict in 2006, Marin officials curbed the campground operation in 2008, cutting camping space in half. Partisans on both sides of the fight are now girding for a showdown before the commission that could come as early as next month when the panel meets in San Luis Obispo.

Dixon gave a wide-ranging overview of the area’s sensitive sand dune and wetlands habitat, home to endangered red-legged frogs and snowy plovers along with meadows “chock-a-block full of native wetland plants.”

Commissioner Ross Mirkarimi, a San Francisco supervisor who had visited the area before, asked the staff to provide reports on the demographics of those who come to the resort, as well as determine how many of 213 trailer sites existed in 1965, before the Coastal Act was approved. “The math is important,” he said.

“We have a natural collision of a pre-Coastal Act practice with a modern-day assessment,” Mirkarimi said in an interview.

Other commissioners had little to say of substance, with several merely indicating the area was unique and the field trip educational. “I don’t have enough information to lean one way or the other,” said Commissioner Sara Wan of Malibu, noting commission staff has not yet filed an analysis of the issues.

A commission attorney warned those joining the tour that the event was not a public hearing and that no public testimony could be taken. The Lawson’s Landing plan has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Earlier, two campground advocates rose at open time as the commission convened in Santa Rosa. “This is the only public campground in Marin County available to low- and moderate-income families,” said Cindy Whitley of Dillon Beach.

Mike Lawson, whose great uncle and aunt, Howard and Winifred Lawson, launched a pier operation in 1929 and later joined with family members in buying land, said he advised advocates “who could have been here by the busload” to stay away, because the commission had a busy agenda and it was not a time for public testimony.

Generations of blue-collar Californians have fled the heat of the Sacramento Valley and flocked to the area to fish, swim and frolic since the Depression. The complex developed without permits into an affordable coastal recreational oasis sporting rows of old aluminum trailers and an expansive meadow that hosts a summer-time surge of recreational vehicles and tent camps.

But environmentalists have sounded the alarm for years in a county otherwise noted for strict building rules, saying the operation tramples sensitive dune and wetlands habitat, wildlife and plants.

A county master plan seeks to protect sensitive areas while maintaining public access to the coast and providing a profitable business for owners Lawson and Carl Vogler. The plan calls for a new septic system, a new store and gateway improvements. It eliminates use of wetlands and reduces camp areas near wetlands from 57 acres to 16 acres.

The county board eased several regulations imposed by planners, saying campers could use sensitive “buffer” areas near wetlands for five years, rather than only three. At the time, Lawson’s attorney, former Coastal Commissioner Gary Giacomini, argued for 10 years, saying the campground could sell a conservation easement eliminating camping in the buffer area altogether — and get money to proceed with improvements. Because camping in the buffer areas can produce income of about $500,000 a year, a 10-year easement could be marketed for “real money,” Giacomini noted then.

Another opportunity for the campground to raise money is under consideration by Caltrans, which is weighing acquisition of a conservation easement at sites including Lawson’s to make up for loss of habitat for the red-legged frog during planned freeway improvements through the Novato Narrows.

As it stands, the county plan under review by the state commission allows 513 camping plots, including 213 travel trailer sites, as well as a limited but undetermined number of sites in an upland area. Currently, the campground has 1,233 camping sites. The county also limited trailer owners, who pay rent of $400 a month, to three months of occupancy a year. The area is not zoned for residential use, and county officials said occupancy rules boost tenant turnover and thus public access to the area.

Both trailer owners and environmentalists appealed to the commission.

Timothy Kassouni, representing trailer owners, said Thursday his clients take issue with regulations including the 90-day occupancy rule. Lester, the commission staff deputy, noted the panel could make occupancy regulations even tougher by imposing limits on tenancy during peak summer use.

The issue, Lester added, boils down to “Is it consistent with the Coastal Act?”

Catherine Caufield, a member of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, said the county plan is at odds with coastal regulations in a number of respects, including failure to protect wetlands and buffer zones.

Co-owner Lawson hopes the commission will allow him to continue operating a resort that has been part of the landscape for almost a century, but worries that piling on restrictions “will only lead to our business failure,” as he told county supervisors two years ago when flanked by consultants, including Rusty Areias, a former state parks director and former Coastal Commission chairman.

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