Agriculture zone shouldn’t force families off their land

POSTED: 07/24/17, 11:45 AM PDT | UPDATED: ON 07/24/2017

Publication: Marin Independent Journal: Editorial


A West Marin landowner is taking the county to court because he says Marin’s restrictive zoning across agricultural lands is preventing him from building a home for his son.

The Pacific Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit July 14 on behalf of Willie Benedetti, who owns 267 acres near Valley Ford.

The lawsuit asserts that a proposed law could limit the ability of Marin landowners in the coastal agricultural zone to build intergenerational housing on their ranches.

The lawsuit raises a nagging issue with the county’s agricultural zoning, which has proven to be an effective tool in preventing the loss of Marin’s ranchlands to market-driven suburban sprawl, an all-too-familiar result in other Bay Area counties.

In its simplest translation, county zoning covering most of West Marin is “A-60,” allowing one unit for every 60 acres.

Allowing leeway for building housing for family members involved in running the family farms and ranches — and for housing for other workers — makes sense, both in fostering a continuation of family operations and not forcing family members or farm help into long commutes.

This leeway should not open the door to the construction of mini-subdivisions, but should be in keeping with the operations of the ranch.

The landowner filing suit is challenging a proposed county zoning change that he says would prevent him from building a second house for one of his two sons, who is not involved in the daily operations of the farm, and would not allow him to continue to live in an existing house after he retires from the business.

He has lived and worked on the farm for 45 years.

The county’s proposed zoning change, made as part of a sweeping, complicated and controversial update of Marin’s coastal plan, must still be endorsed by the California Coastal Commission.

The lawsuit challenges the county’s proposed zoning as “unconstitutional.”

That’s for a court to decide, but it makes sense to take a second look at the possible ramifications of the zoning change.

Requiring a retired rancher to give up his or her home because he or she is no longer working seems to be a governmental overreach. The goal is to protect farmland from being covered with homes, but the county should not be forcing retirees off the land in which many of them have invested their time, sweat and livelihoods.

It is reassuring the county has said that the zoning change is not intended to push retired ranchers and farmers off their land. But that’s not the way the Pacific Legal Foundation, a long-standing legal force in private property rights battles, reads the fine print.

That should be cleared up.

It makes sense that secondary housing built on ranches and farms covered by the restrictive zoning should be for the people needed to run those operations. That should not be a high bar to clear — and there is a clear economic and environmental benefit in having workers, family or not, not have to make long commutes.

At the same time, there should be a reasonable limit on the number and size of the dwellings to prevent them from eroding the zoning’s agricultural intent.

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