An overflow crowd packed a Civic Center board room Wednesday (July 13), testifying for hours before many departed in disgust as the state Coastal Commission literally took a page from an environmental partisan’s wish list and began to dismantle a proposal to improve Lawson’s Landing at Dillon Beach in Northern California.

Lawson’s representatives said the plan to eliminate travel trailers in three years would scuttle improvement plans in light of a revenue squeeze, and asked the panel to deny the project so they could submit another one, but Supervisor Steve Kinsey, seated as a coastal commissioner, called for a break allowing the owners to reconsider, the Marin Independent-Journal reported.

More than an hour later, resort owners and staff reported on a compromise that eliminates 229 travel trailers serving residents in five years without rental restrictions. The commission approved the plan 10-1.

Kinsey’s call for cooler heads came near the end of a marathon hearing after the session took an unusual turn, with the state panel accepting an environmental group’s one-page list of concerns and proceeding to vote its key points up or down, a move that infuriated project proponents.

“This would put us out of business!” declared an agitated Gary Giacomini when the commission voted to scrap travel trailers in three years. “It’s end game for us,” said Giacomini, serving as Lawson’s attorney.

But by the time the day-long hearing ended at 10:15 p.m., commissioners had ditched that plan and agreed to let residents live in their trailers for five more years. At that time, the trailers hooked to makeshift septic systems must be hauled away and replaced with visitor-serving recreational vehicles or campsites.

The trailers owned by residents occupy space they lease for $400 a month, revenues that Lawson’s owners count on to help finance improvements. “To wipe them all out wipes out our ability to stay in business,” Giacomini said, expressing outrage the commission used a check list of restrictions sought by the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin to specifically vote on committee issues, ignoring staff recommendations in the process.

Kinsey also expressed dismay when the commission began dismantling the project. “Let’s take down the whole thing…I find it really sad you would take one advocacy position,” he told colleague Esther Sanchez, who urged the trailers be scrapped. “It’s stunning!”

A move by Sanchez to eliminate 115 camping sites was rejected by the commission.

Jared Ficker of California Strategies, Lawsons’ consultant, joined others in bewilderment when the panel seemed intent on stitching together major revisions to its staff proposal. He asked the panel to deny the project so he could regroup and submit a new plan.

“We would prefer denial so we (have time) to get clarity,” he said. “This is a substantial change,” he added of junking the travel trailers.

After Kinsey urged Ficker to reconsider, the panel postponed further review for an hour to allow Lawson representatives to reflect. The result was a deal after years of controversy about development plans.

The ramshackle, 960-acre site, home to the largest stretch of sand dune habitat in private ownership on the coast, has developed without benefit of permits over the years into the region’s biggest coastal campground, providing generations of blue-collar Californians with recreational opportunities.

At issue: Balancing environmental protection of unique coastal resources with affordable access to the coast, both key goals of the state Coastal Act.

As the meeting began Wednesday morning, dozens of Lawson’s Landing boosters wearing blue “Save Lawson’s Landing” T-shirts and ball caps filed into the Board of Supervisors chambers, along with a spectrum of environmental activists, some saying protecting species including endangered red-legged frogs on the property was more important than accommodating campers.

Emotions ran high at times and the session was interrupted early on when a man began ranting from the audience, prompting the panel to adjourn briefly, then reconvene, joined by three sheriff’s deputies who monitored the crowd.

In a detailed 156-page report, commission staff embraced the overall scope of a plan approved by the county last year, but cut camp spaces by about 15% and added numerous restrictions, conditions and time limits that could curb development further — and will prove costly. Resort owners Michael Lawson and Carl Vogler intend to raise $5 million by selling a 465-acre conservation easement to the National Resources Conservation Service.

The staff recommended approval of 417 recreational vehicle and tent spaces, and, initially, 229 year-round travel trailer spaces, and called for store, parking, fuel, mooring, boat repair and sales, waste system and road improvements. Development will be limited to 33 acres, and additional restrictions imposed near dune and wetland areas along with a restoration and habitat program.

Other limitations initially urged by staff included regulation of travel trailers by preventing owners from living in them for more than 90 days a year — and a maximum of 30 days during the summer. The rest of the time, trailers must be rented out to boost coastal access for others, the staff proposed. Stays in recreational vehicles and tents will be limited to 10 consecutive nights.

But the novel plan to turn beach trailer residences into affordable rental units to boost coastal access goals fell flat as the commission voted 7-4 to eliminate the trailers as permanent homes within three years. Later, the commission reconsidered, voting 10-1 to eliminate them in five years, without rental restrictions in the meantime.

Officials were mindful of a staff assertion that because most existing development was illegal, “the commission must consider the application as though the development had not occurred.” At the same time, officials must acknowledge the project provides “needed lower cost visitor serving public access and recreation including coastal-dependent water oriented activities of extremely high statewide significance that is mandated by the Coastal Act.”

The project depends on a variety of financing, including $2 million in camping and lease fees, bank loans and the conservation easement, to pay for improvements such as the $2 million wastewater treatment program to replace 127 septic systems now on the property.Read learn more about this hearing, click here to read an account from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.