By Glen Martin,
Chronicle Environment Writer
Monday, May 23, 2005
Controversy is brewing over the future of Lawson's Landing in West Marin, a 900-acre chunk of dunes and wetlands at the mouth of Tomales Bay.
The property, in the hamlet of Dillon Beach, was acquired by a Woodland dairy farmer in 1929, and has since remained in the Lawson family.
Since the 1950s, Lawson's Landing has been a destination for North State campers, many of them seeking respite from the wilting heat of the Central Valley.
Today, the landing has spaces for 1,000 recreational vehicles in a glen between the dunes, as well as a trailer park with about 230 sites -- and about 100 septic systems -- along the bay's shore.
Tomales Bay offers boating, fishing and clamming, and Point Reyes National Seashore is just across the channel. There is even a dog-friendly beach -- a rarity in California.
But Lawson's Landing is smack in the middle of the Tomales Dunes, home to numerous rare critters and plants. And the family RV park has been operating all these years without requisite county and state Coastal Commission commercial-use permits.
The issue is heating up with the expected release this summer of an environmental impact report that will be used by Marin County to determine appropriate commercial uses at the landing.
Landing residents generally support the Lawsons' operation, characterizing family members as sound conservationists.
"They're good stewards of the land," said John Brezina, a marine biologist who lives at the landing. "They've taken some financial hits to protect the environment. They gave up hang gliding operations off the dunes, and they closed a barge service to the clam beds because they believed the resource couldn't take the pressure."
But Marin environmentalists have long been bothered by Lawson's Landing. They note it is the largest private RV park on the California coast, and claim that the hundreds of people who swarm into the site on busy summer weekends harm the Tomales Dunes.
"In the summer, you can look over here and it's just packed with trailers and RVs," said Catherine Caufield, the director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, during a recent tour of the dunes.
Threatened with closure by the state in the early 1990s, the landing did receive a provisional California operational permit after Marin County interceded on the Lawsons' behalf.
But even with the state operational permit, the campground has essentially operated in a kind of regulatory limbo. Without use permits from the county and state Coastal Commission, the RV campground and trailer park may not be precisely illegal -- but neither are they wholly legal.
Mike Lawson, the current president of the company, said he is determined to bring the operation into full compliance.
The Lawson family has drafted a master plan for the landing; it proposes to keep RV and trailer development at the current level, while allowing for the construction of a large leach field to deal with the sewage. The Tomales Dunes are increasingly recognized as an ecological rarity. Most of California's dune lands have been lost to urbanization. The once expansive dunes of Pacifica and San Francisco, for example, have been flattened and covered with houses.
The Tomales Dunes have escaped that fate. They are home to more than 15 endangered, threatened or rare species. And they are one of the few places on the California coast where snowy plovers spend the winter, although they don't nest there.
Peter Baye, a consulting biologist who has done extensive work in the area, said the dunes have excellent potential as nesting grounds for the endangered snowy plover.
"This is classic plover habitat," said Baye. "It has the wide, flat sandy beaches in front with the scattered vegetation in the back zones that they like."
One reason the birds may not be nesting in the area currently is the abundant dogs, said Baye. Snowy plovers are hypersensitive to canines, and will abandon any area where they intrude.
Baye said the Tomales Dunes are the best example of a "gegenwalle" dune complex in California: An undulating network of shifting dunes that run counter to the prevailing winds, the whole interspersed with wetlands.
"It's one of the only examples of actively evolving dune systems from San Luis Obispo to Humboldt," Baye said.
All these factors make the Tomales Dunes unique, said Caufield. Any master plan for the area, she said, must make the protection of the dune lands paramount.
Caufield said she has problems with some of the Lawson family's proposals, including a large septic system.
"It's going to be big as a football field, and it will be located in migrating dune lands that have a high water table," she said. "That could affect dune habitat, ground water quality and the wetlands. This is clearly a sensitive resource."
Brezina, the marine biologist, says that -- so far, at least -- the landing is contributing little if any pollution to the bay.
"The invertebrates I collect are used as baseline specimens in (pollution) laboratories across the country, simply because they are essentially uncontaminated," Brezina said. "I've been collecting here 30 years. If there were problems with toxics, I'd pick them right up, or my labs would call and say 'Hey, what's this ... we're seeing in the tissues?' "
Caufield said the Environmental Action Committee also opposes a quarry the Lawsons operate in the dunes, which has been permitted by the county to remove sand until 2006.
But more generally, Caufield questions whether the current size of the Lawson operation is appropriate for the dunes.
"I'm willing to wait for the release of the EIR before I make up my mind, but we have real concerns," she said. "This operation got to the size it is without scientific or environmental review. If a change is required (in commercial use) to keep these dune lands viable for future generations, we have to look at that."
Lawson said his family has demonstrated its commitment to land stewardship for decades. The fact that so many rare species inhabit the property, Lawson said, indicates the family is doing something right.
"It's simply not true that this land is 'unprotected,' " he said. "The dunes have major protection under a (Dillon Beach) use plan. We are fully committed to obtaining county and coastal permits, which is why we're paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for the EIR.
"We care about this land as much or more than anyone else."
E-mail Glen Martin at email@example.com.
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