County of Marin - News Releases - SPAWN Settlement

For Immediate Release
May 16, 2022

County Reaches Legal Settlement with Nonprofit

Environmental group SPAWN challenged language in Countywide Plan

San Rafael, CA – After more than a decade of litigation in various courts, the County of Marin has agreed in principle to a settlement with a Marin County-based environmental nonprofit that challenged the County’s analysis of the environmental effects of the 2007 Marin Countywide Plan on endangered fish species in the San Geronimo Valley. If it is finalized, the settlement could close the book on a legal dispute that dates to 2010.

The litigation was first initiated by the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN), a leading advocate for the protection of marine wildlife based in Olema. In 2015, the County was ordered to perform additional analysis of the environmental effects of the 2007 Countywide Plan. In 2019, after the County adopted a supplemental environmental impact report, SPAWN joined with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a nonprofit environmental group with offices in numerous states, to file a new lawsuit, alleging the County’s supplemental analysis remained inadequate.

In 2021, Judge Andrew Sweet of the Marin County Superior Court found that the County’s environmental analysis was still flawed because, in part, the County had not sufficiently justified its decision to defer adoption of an ordinance that would protect the stream conservation area (SCA) in the San Geronimo Valley. 

The County appealed Judge Sweet’s ruling, and that appeal remains pending. But over the past year, the County’s Community Development Agency (CDA) has separately moved forward with its development of an SCA ordinance to protect the health of streams and habitat for the endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout in the San Geronimo Valley, consistent with riparian protection policies from the Countywide Plan and environmental reports. CDA's efforts have included outreach to numerous stakeholders as well as a series of public meetings, culminating in a December 2021 hearing at the Marin County Planning Commission to consider a draft SCA ordinance. 

The settlement framework announced May 16 lists the terms of an SCA ordinance that largely aligns with the one considered by the Marin County Planning Commission on December 13, 2021, but with some modifications to clarify terminology and expand development restrictions in the ordinance. The settlement is contingent on the Board of Supervisors adopting an SCA ordinance containing these terms after receiving input from the public. A revised SCA ordinance will be considered by the Planning Commission at a meeting set for June 13, and then by the Marin County Board of Supervisors at a meeting set for July 19. If the Supervisors adopt an ordinance with terms that are not consistent with the settlement framework, the settlement will not go forward, and the litigation will continue.  

“The settlement provides the opportunity to incorporate meaningful amendments to the draft SCA ordinance that strives to balance the goals of improving habitat protection with the ability for residents to maintain their properties and undertake modest improvements,” said Tom Lai, CDA Director.

The settlement, if finalized, would also require the County take other steps not associated with the SCA ordinance and intended to balance the interests of property owners in the San Geronimo Valley with the need to protect important habitat. Those include the creation of a mechanism to accept anonymous complaints related to SCA ordinance violations, expanded enforcement capacity for SCA ordinance violations, and the creation of a voluntary pilot program for inspecting properties in the area for SCA ordinance violations at the time they are sold. Separately, the County would also be required to pay $240,000 to resolve SPAWN’s and CBD’s demand for attorneys’ fees and costs in connection with the case. If the settlement is finalized, SPAWN and CBD would dismiss their claims against the County and release the County from all California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) claims arising from adoption of the 2007 Countywide Plan and associated environmental reviews, as well as all CEQA claims arising from the adoption of the SCA ordinance.

“It’s time to heal and move forward as it is in the interest of everyone to have the cloud of litigation lifted and have clarity and certainty around the rules for what can and cannot be done along our protected streams and waterways in San Geronimo Valley,” said Board of Supervisors President Katie Rice.

Marin CDA administers building and zoning regulations that protect public safety and the environment. CDA staff plans to post a revised draft SCA ordinance on the County website and begin planning for the public hearings before the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. Should the Planning Commission recommend the revisions at its June 13 hearing, the ordinance would be placed on a Board of Supervisors agenda for July 19.


Brian Washington
County Counsel
Office of the County Counsel

Marin County Civic Center
3501 Civic Center Drive
San Rafael, CA 94903
(415) 473-6117
Email: Brian Washington