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Shifting Sands

Lawson's Landing considers next moves

Tom Gogola Jan 3, 2018 4:00 AM
Tom Gogola
COST OF COMPLIANCE Lawson’s co-owner Mike Lawson says the family-owned business will continue to work with environmentalists and the state to upgrade its facilities.

All is quiet on a breezy winter morning at Lawson's Landing in Dillon Beach as land-use negotiations continue to play out between the Lawson family and the California Coastal Commission.

In its latest appearance before the 12-member commission in November, Lawson's long-in-the-works wastewater-removal plan was rejected because it reportedly posed a threat to federally endangered red-legged frog habitat.

I spent the morning with Lawson's lead legal consultant and self-described environmentalist Tom Flynn and the affable Mike Lawson, a co-owner of the grounds, touring the variegated acreage and getting the rundown on their plan for a new wastewater system after the coastal commission shot down their latest iteration of the plan.

To hear the pro-Lawson's forces tell the tale, Lawson's has been working in good faith to come into compliance with various upgrades and state demands since 2008 when the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin (EAC) appealed a Marin County Board of Supervisors' decision to approve low-cost camping on about 90 acres in the 950-acre property.

Lawson's has been in operation since the 1950s and mostly serves out-of-town campers rolling in from the Central Valley. It's a wind-scrubbed haven near the mouth of Tomales Bay that features camping, fishing and boating, and hosts a boat livery and machine shop for boat repairs.

The site had numerous environmental issues that predated the takeover of the facility by a younger generation of Lawsons. A sand-mining operation has been shuttered. Numerous old bathrooms have been shut down and hundreds of camping spaces have been closed in order to accommodate the demands of the coastal commission.

The Lawsons submitted a Coastal Development Plan (CDP) that was approved by the commission in 2011 and which set out the contours of a plan that would keep Lawson's in business, while addressing environmental-remediation issues over a period of years and projects.

Over the following six years, the family tried to meet the demands of both the EAC and the Coastal Commission, says Flynn, as it set out to bring the facility into full compliance with environmental law, and which included retiring some old bathrooms in sensitive camping areas. This transition at Lawson's appeared to reach its most physically obvious and painful nadir when the Lawsons removed the last of the funky old legacy trailers from the site in 2016 as part of the 2011 agreement.

In early December, the place felt like it was lost in a limbo as the latest coastal commission vote represented a "back-to-the-drawing-board" moment for the Lawsons and Flynn. They've been busily sussing out a new pathway for the wastewater pipes that won't run afoul of the commission, by avoiding areas that the coastal commission says would unduly impact the frogs. In the transition from the old wastewater system (which has been removed) to the new one (which has yet to be approved), Lawson's has leaned heavily on portable toilets for its guests.

As for those old funky trailers, the idea was to replace them with higher-end cottage-trailers, says Lawson, and to expand the camping areas to accommodate tent campers.

Those spots now remain vacant, save for the addition of some picnic benches. It's the slow season and the biggest crowd they've seen lately were the 500 or so folks who showed up after getting burned out in the North Bay fires.

Scott Hochstrasser, a former Marin County environmental review officer, submitted a letter to the coastal commision that summed up the history at Lawson's to date, and the pro-Lawson's frustration at the EAC. Hochstrasser wrote that Lawson's was "an appropriate place for expansion of visitor-serving facilities including overnight camping and boating, providing appropriate environmental resources were protected and sewage disposal facilities were improved to State Regional Water Quality Control Board standards."

The latest setback for Lawson's ensued after the commission voted 8–4 against a wastewater-treatment plan that was prepared by the hydrologist recommended by the EAC, says Flynn. In the meantime, says Mike Lawson, the family has been making all sorts of improvements to the business. Lawson's is now hosting a Friday-night beer-and-oysters shindig, offering succulent bivalves from its recently upgraded camp store. And they've put in new picnic tables with great views of Tomales Bay for day-use adventurers who head to this remote little part of Northwest Marin County.

The Coastal Commission vote and push by local environmentalists to reject the Lawson's wastewater plan has given rise to what pro-Lawson's forces describe as a "move the goalposts" dynamic.

The characterization is not shared by the EAC, says the organization's director, Morgan Patton.

At issue in the latest ruling is the fate of a resident population of red-legged frogs and making sure a wastewater system doesn't impact their habitat.

On the one hand, Lawson's was given permission to build new camping spaces under that part of the California Coastal Act that guarantees coastal access to all. But the Coastal Act also restricts development in "environmentally sensitive habitat areas," which is exactly where the frogs currently reside.

In essence, the original 2011 agreement with Lawson's set out to find a balance between the two Coastal Act edicts, and hinges on the installation of a new wastewater-removal system in wetland areas that host the ponds that the frogs populate.

Flynn cites reams of documents and counter-arguments to the coastal commission, as he says the wastewater plan was supported by commission staff, but that a push from local environmentalists swayed a few of the commissioners.

In a bristling op-ed in the Marin Independent Journal that followed the commission's no-vote, Flynn also claimed that the Lawson's plan to protect the frog was even superior to the one offered by the EAC. During a visit to the facility, Flynn and Lawson pledged to continue to work with the organization to find a solution to the wastewater dilemma, and they've already set out to offer a revised plan to transport wastewater to a place where it can be properly filtered before re-entering the watershed.

In his letter to the Coastal Commission, Hochstrasser accused the EAC of setting out to "exclude rural property owners from succeeding to provide low-cost, visitor-serving recreational opportunities on coastal lands for future generations who live outside of Marin County." In effect, he accused the EAC of trying to drive Lawson's out of business.

The EAC's Patton notes that the latest offering from Lawson's had two problems: the impact on frog habitat, and a preexisting conflict-resolution process enshrined in the Coastal Act that was already adjudicated in the original deal with Lawson's.

That was the heart of the 2011 resolution between the competing demands of the Coastal Act, she says, when Lawson's was given permission to develop recreational camping in wetlands areas, and also agreed to build a new wastewater system along with other environmental upgrades.

"The EAC has worked with the Lawsons along the way," says Patton, strongly dismissing any notion that move-the-goalposts chicanery is afoot, or that the EAC is indifferent to the recreational needs of out-of-town beachgoers. "We are supportive of what they are doing. We just want to make sure it's in the appropriate place that's not damaging the habitat."

Patton says that the EAC is simply trying to hold the Lawsons to the agreement they signed in 2011 that set out their Coastal Development Plan.

"It's not moving the goalposts," she says. "It's looking at the CDP."