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Residency trumps wealth in Stinson Beach water rationing plans

Stinson Beach County water officials vote Saturday on water rationing that favors full-time residents
Stinson Beach may charge vacation rentals steep prices for using more than 125 gallons of water a day
Water rationing debate reflects changing character of Stinson Beach

Sarah Butler crammed garbage bags packed with laundry into her old Volkswagen van on her weekly run "over the hill" to Mill Valley.

Some of the 630 or so permanent residents of this Marin County town have recently begun to make this trek, thanks to the statewide drought. But these weren't Butler's linens and towels. A broker with Oceanic Realty, she was hauling for vacation renters, who along with day-trippers can swell the population here on a summer weekend as high as 15,000.

As the Stinson Beach County Water District board prepares to vote Saturday on a rationing regimen, the talk here is of the town's split: full-timers whose numbers are dwindling versus an ever-increasing number of out-of-towners with multimillion-dollar second homes, many used as seasonal rentals.

This sparkling hamlet bordered by a gentle cove and lagoons teeming with wildlife gets all of its water from the western slope of majestic Mt. Tamalpais, where the water soaks into the sandy aquifer. The number of wells that can capture it is limited, as is the storage capacity of a handful of tanks.

The rationing ordinance, which is expected to be approved, was crafted after nearly a dozen emotional community meetings, with the town's unusual demographics at the core.

The vote comes as districts throughout California are passing restrictions on outdoor watering required by the state last month. Dozens of cities and counties, meanwhile, have already imposed more rigorous across-the-board rationing programs.

In Stinson Beach, which got its start as a late 19th century tent camp for beachgoers, rationing would be triggered if all storage tanks on average fail to refill to 70% of capacity for seven days in a row. At that point, the unincorporated community would face the prospect of having to truck in water — at great cost.

In crafting a solution, board members gave year-rounders a leg up. While households of four or more can receive allotments above the base of 125 gallons per day, vacation rentals — even those that host 10 visitors at a time — are out of luck. Those who exceed that amount would pay a steep price for additional water and also face fines.

Already, doing laundry is forbidden at the 40 vacation rentals managed by Jeanne Sherfey's Highway One Properties. And Butler requires guests of the 60 rentals managed by Oceanic to agree to forfeit $500 from their deposit if they exceed the average daily cap and the owner is fined.

"Simply stated, if you'd like to come, you'll have to conserve," said Butler, a 22-year-resident, adding that so far clients overwhelmingly "get it."

Vacation rentals are "a political hot button," she said, and some longtime residents are calling for a ban. But Butler called that notion "ridiculous. It's what our economy is based on now. It would literally pull the rug out from under Stinson Beach."

What has resulted instead is a delicate balancing act.

Two years ago, the water board requested voluntary reductions and began improving infrastructure: a new well, two new storage tanks and an ongoing hunt for leaks.

By January, however, board members realized that voluntary measures were not working. An educational campaign and the prospect of rationing has since led to a drop in use. But general manager Ed Schmidt said the board realized those measures simply wouldn't be enough if conditions remained dry.

The first draft ordinance called for a 110-gallon-a-day cap for all. Residents balked. It was raised to 125, with larger household allowances. But relief for vacation rentals and absentee-owned homes, which account for more than half of the town's 725 hookups, was never on the table.

"The No. 1 priority was to make sure the year-round residents … had enough water to protect their health and safety," said board President Barbara Boucke, a retired arts administrator. "That was critical."

Boucke, 75, lives on the lagoon side of the gated Seadrift housing development, where only about 10% of the 300 homes are occupied year-round. She has already let her garden die. On a recent day, she noted an absent neighbor's outdoor shower dripping and pledged to call her immediately.

When another absentee neighbor made a list of the 10 top water users, she approached the gardener to ask why. He had been soaking a newly planted bush. Alarmed, he cut back, reducing the home's use by half the following month.

"The people who are concerned haven't stopped to realize that it's totally manageable," Boucke said.

Other adjustments were made. An earlier version called for shut-offs for persistent scofflaws, but Boucke, noting potential liability in case of fire, said, "We realized we couldn't cut off water to $7-million homes."

Instead, fines will accrue, along with excess-use water charges of $100 per 100 cubic feet — equal to what it would cost to truck it in.

Like Sherfey and Butler, Boucke believes the vast majority of owners and vacation renters will do their part. But for the few who want to have "two hot tubs, a swimming pool and a fountain running at the same time," the only solution was "onerous" penalties, she said. Anyone wishing to appeal, she noted cheerfully, must show up in person: "They can't send their minions."

Some second-home owners are concerned.

Sausalito cabinetmaker Don Anderson, 48, built a "green" home here with his wife in 2006, but they soon moved, fleeing the shrinking school district in search of other options. (The 2000 U.S. census showed 71 kids under 10 years of age in Stinson Beach; by 2010 there were half as many.)

Anderson, who rents out the home, said he wasn't worried about exceeding allotments. But he believes the ordinance is vulnerable to legal challenge for treating some owners — namely those who don't vote for water board members — differently than others.

"It's a prejudicial taking," he said. "There's a division in the community when you try to codify something like that. It would be nice if the school was full of children, but you can't just make that happen by taking other people's water." (Schmidt said the ordinance had been vetted by the water district's legal counsel.)

As the conversation continues, one thing has become clear: It has as much or more to do with the town's changing character as it does with water.

"The wealth of the property owners is something that continually spirals upward," said longtime resident John Washington, 63, who is fire commissioner and a member of the flood advisory board.

As he sat recently on the outdoor patio of one of Stinson's three restaurants, he spied just two locals in the lunch crowd and promptly rattled off their family lineage. Glancing up, he pointed out a more recent part-time owner as she motored past.

"There goes one of our resident Ferraris," he said.

He acknowledges that visitors spend plenty of money here, but he welcomes the start of winter — "when the kids are in school, the tourists are home and you can have your canasta game on Highway 1."

Said Washington: "The town is developing to a point where we are peaking on the available resources."

lee.romney@latimes.com

Twitter: @leeromney

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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