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Deal could end dispute over resort

Owners of a seaside camp in Marin County may be close to an agreement with the state over the environmental impact of development.

January 02, 2007|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

DILLON BEACH, CALIF. — On one side of sea grass-tufted dunes at Lawson's Landing, the mouth of Tomales Bay opens toward sparkling waves, rocky outcroppings and, in the distance, the brown bluffs of Bodega Head.

On the other lies a hodgepodge of more than 200 weather-beaten trailer homes along with a boathouse, a snack bar and sheds. Nearby sprawls a 1,000-vehicle campground dotted with picnic tables, fire rings and portable toilets -- all amid coastal wetlands at the base of towering dune formations.

Although the privately owned Marin County resort attracts hundreds of thousands of beach lovers each year, the state Coastal Commission says most of Lawson's Landing was constructed over the past half-century without permits from agencies that enforce building, land-use and environmental standards.

Much of the development, state officials and environmentalists say, occurred in fragile dunes and wetlands that harbor endangered and threatened species, including peregrine falcons and red-legged frogs.

"It is California's largest un-permitted coastal campground," said Mark Massara, coastal program director for the Sierra Club. "It also is one of the longest-running, least-accomplished land-use sagas in California history."

But to the throngs of people who come here each year to camp, boat, fish and clam, Lawson's Landing is Shangri-La, and in a county better known for wealthy enclaves and expensive getaways, Lawson's is a rare populist haven.

"To me, it's a poor man's paradise," said Helmuth Himmrich, a Lodi retiree who has been vacationing at the landing since 1965 and was bitten by a shark in 1972 while diving for abalone nearby. "In the evening," he said, "we have a little fire and congregate and visit with friends and lie to each other about the fishing."

Decades of tangling over illegal construction moved a step closer to resolution in December when the Lawson family, which has owned the property since the 1920s, consented to an order adopted by the Coastal Commission. The family agreed to refrain from further construction and to complete applications for coastal development permits within 120 days, or face penalties of up to $6,000 per day.

"It's worth saving, and I think we can work something out," said Lawson's Landing President Mike Lawson, one of a dozen family members who live and work there. "There will probably be a degree of downsizing."

All sides in the long-running dispute agree that balancing environmental safeguards and the resort's role in providing affordable coastal access to inlanders is challenging, but important.

Sporting "Save Lawson's Landing" stickers on their chests, a few hundred supporters packed the commission meeting in San Francisco on Dec. 14. Thousands more wrote letters.

Terri Brodski, a Placer County real estate broker who has spent summers at the landing since her childhood, pays $300 a month to keep a trailer here year-round. "My dad took us to enjoy the beach," she said in an interview. "My kids learned to fish there."

Tim Woerner, a trailer owner who uses a wheelchair and has lived at the landing for 36 years, recently took in the sun outside the snack and bait shop. "I think [the commission's] agenda is to make it like that park and put it back in a natural state," he said, pointing across the bay toward Point Reyes National Seashore.

The Lawson family originally operated the 940-acre property as a cattle and sheep ranch, which most of it still is. In 1957, they opened a campground, and in the early 1960s, the state declared that 15 trailers on the property were there illegally.

Over the next several decades, the thriving resort was cited for permit violations by various state and local agencies, but its applications and environmental reviews often were rejected, incomplete or late.

"It slipped through the cracks for 40 years," said Catherine Caufield, outgoing executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. "A lot of people were enjoying it out there, so maybe it was not the most attractive thing for officials to take on."

But Brian Crawford, assistant director of the county Community Planning Agency, said the process has been drawn out by complex issues, such as weighing environmental impact against public access needs. Crawford said an environmental impact report is nearing completion.

"The county wants ... to preserve one of the only low-cost accommodations in Marin County, where a bed and breakfast can run $250 a night and up," he said. "At the same time, the county is intent on preserving the dunes and other sensitive areas."

After complaints from Caufield's organization and the Sierra Club that the county's coastal permit process was moving too slowly, the commission embarked on its current enforcement actions in 2005.

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