Farmer sues Marin County over building permit requirements

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — A turkey farmer is suing Marin County and the California Coastal Commission over building permit restrictions he says could prevent him from retiring.

Willie Benedetti, owner of Valley Ford, Calif.-based Benedetti Farms and Willie Bird Turkeys, claims rules in the county’s coastal agricultural zone would require him to stay involved in his family’s business if he were to build a house on his property for his son.

The Pacific Legal Foundation filed suit on his behalf July 14 in Marin County Superior Court, arguing the zoning regulation amounts to a “forced-farming mandate” that violates the constitutional rights to liberty and property.

“I just want to build a house for my son,” Benedetti said in a videotaped statement released by PLF. “We’re not talking about environmental issues. We’re just talking about building a house, and I have to stay in agriculture to see that it gets done. Otherwise we can’t build it.”

Brian Washington, an attorney for Marin County, said he hadn’t yet reviewed the case but added county officials believe the regulation “would provide flexibility for inter-generational housing” and passing on properties from one generation to the next.

“We’ll certainly look at the complaint with (succession) in mind when we see it and analyze it carefully,” Washington said.

Coastal commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz said July 14 the agency’s attorneys had likely not yet seen the complaint.

The suit centers on elements of the county’s Local Coastal Program, a land-use document required of coastal counties under state law. Updates are subject to the coastal commission’s approval.

The document identifies the location, type, densities and other ground rules for future development in the coastal zone, according to the county’s website.

The PLF and Benedetti allege the planning document requires landowners to remain “actively and directly engaged” in agriculture. The county seeks to require applicants for development permits to grant several easements to the county, including a covenant against subdividing the land and an easement requiring the owner to be actively and directly engaged in commercial agriculture, the PLF contends.

“Building a dwelling unit on Mr. Benedetti’s property will trigger the requirement that the property be owned by someone actively and directly engaged in agricultural use of the property,” PLF attorney Jeremy Talcott wrote in the complaint. “Eventually, Mr. Benedetti would like to retire from his role as president of Benedetti Farms and Willie Bird Turkeys.

“Even once Mr. Benedetti finally steps down from day-to-day operations of his farm, he would like to retain ownership of both companies and the 267-acre parcel” and still live there, Talcott wrote.

The PLF points to a 30-year-old Supreme Court decision in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, which barred officials from coercing oppressive concessions from applicants for development permits.

The suit came as Marin County officials on July 14 were asking the coastal commission to clarify certain definitions of “ongoing agriculture” within its requirements, including what constitutes routine agricultural production activities that are exempt from needing development permits.

The case is Benedetti v. County of Marin and the California Coastal Commission. For more information, visit .

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