Dirty water may alter county's development rules

Mounting evidence of contamination in Peninsula waterways coupled with stricter state and federal environmental guidelines are propelling San Mateo County lawmakers to toughen up development regulations.

“This is going to pose some difficult questions for homeowners and property owners,” said Mary Raftery of the county counsel’s office. “There’s going to have to be a different way to think about how to use property near creeks and streams.”

Planning commissioners on Wednesday received the first peek at an extensive public information campaign planned to educate county residents about the need for the restrictions.

In developing new regulations, county officials will consider focusing regulations on households near any waterway or on a hillside. However, what is considered near a stream and the definition of “steep” has not been decided.

For homeowners, the restrictions will affect any remodeling work or something as simple as installing a swimming pool with a more complicated permit and fee process, though how stringent it will be is still up in the air. Officials will also consider whether to include a grandfather clause that would allow existing development to continue.

Developers will also be heavily restricted with any new project.

While the regulations will affect the county’s unincorporated areas, many city governments will have to grapple with the issue soon, county officials said.

A number of factors have compelled the county to act: the Federal Endangered Species Act listings of Coho salmon, Steelhead trout, tiger salamander and red-legged frog, the Federal Clean Water Act and new watershed protection requirements being drafted by the state Water Resources Control Board, said Sam Herzberg, senior planner with the county’s parks department.

The changes will be most noticeable in inland areas, as development regulations that protect sensitive habitats have been long implemented in the coastal areas. A 2001 UC Berkeley study of San Mateo’s policies recommended the protections be extended outside the coastal zone.

The rise in sediment caused by encroaching development as well as recent studies cited by the San Mateo County Water Pollution Prevention Program found 80 percent of pollution entering the Bay is caused by contaminated runoff, Herzberg said. In 2007, Pacifica creek mouths held fecal bacteria warnings one-third of the year.

La Honda resident Dave Schorr said he supports the proposed new regulations, but had concerns about more wineries springing up on the coast.

“Be cautious that there aren’t loopholes that allow existing operations to expand,” he told planning commissioners.

Officials will hold a series of public workshops across the county starting as early as this month until June. Meeting dates will be announced soon and posted at www.flowstobay.org under the Watershed Protection heading.

tbarak@examiner.com

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