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Sea Change

New deal at Lawson's Landing spells the end of an era—but will it also be the end of Lawson's?



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"I'm extremely nervous," says Vogler. "This is supposed to remain a place for low-cost coastal access, and I want to keep it that way."

While he sees a business after the transition, "it's paying off the other stuff to get there that is the terrifying part. The trick is to make the income meet the out-go."

Marin County supervisor Steve Kinsey is more optimistic.

"I believe that Lawson's Landing has several more generations of opportunity for visitors to come," says Kinsey, who has dual role here in his additional capacity as a commissioner with the California Coastal Commission. Kinsey notes that the family has a "very viable coastal development permit that they can work with."

Kinsey was, however, surprised to hear the extent of the worry expressed by Vogler and co-owner Mike Lawson over staying in business.

"I personally think they should be talking to me if they think it is that serious," he says. "The last thing we want to do is to eliminate the largest coastal camping opportunity in Northern California. That's not the intention, and there would be ways that it could possibly be addressed. I am determined to help them not go out of business."

Kinsey says that he had been an early proponent of seeing the "historic trailers prevail," but agrees with the ruling consensus that those folks had to share the wealth with other campers.

Catherine Caufield is the former executive director of the West Marin Environmental Action Committee, a nonprofit that was a major driving force for the changes afoot at Lawson's. She agrees that the slow-roll on the scientific study has created "a bit of a bottleneck, because it just took time to do a good job."

Caufield credits the family with the changes that they have made to address the environmental concerns her organization highlighted. "I believe that Mike [Lawson] and Willy want to do the right thing," she says, "and we're always there to encourage them just a little bit more."

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the camper-trailers, which have provided a backbone of rental income to the owners for decades. The 2011 deal gave those trailer owners a five-year window to get out. That's a hard deadline, and it's coming July 13, 2016.

The coastal commission has two general mandates: Keep the coast clear of excessive development that would negatively impact the environment; and ensure that the California coastline is accessible to everyone, and especially those of lesser means.

Lawson's and Marin County struck a deal to keep the business going in 2008. The West Marin Environmental Action Committee challenged that agreement, and that's when the issue jumped from the county's in-box to the coastal commission.

"The coastal commission was supposed to shut us down," Vogler recalls. They entered into a "consent cease and desist" with the agency as part of the agreement to remove the trailers. "They chose not to enforce the 'cease' part as long as we kept moving down the road, making the improvements," he says.

"What the coastal commission did—right, wrong or indifferent—was they offered a compromise that PO'd the environmentalists, the NIMBY people and us. I'd call it a good compromise where people wind up basically being equally unhappy. Everybody was more or less disappointed with it."


"This was supposed to be a fast-track deal," says Mike Lawson. "The five-year period is coming to an end, and we have no way of replacing our business in a quick, business-like time frame with something else. Either the coastal commission is going to allow us to keep the business afloat for another year or two, or we are going to be facing some really hard times. When the trailers go away, we have to replace that revenue, but we can't replace that with low-cost, overnight camping."

Lawson says that survivability may now hinge on a new wastewater system that's part of the purview of the coastal commission study currently underway. The family, he says, had submitted a preliminary proposal to the commission and Marin County to get a proper use permit for the proposed build-out, and it was approved—but only preliminarily.

TRAILER BE GONE The clock is ticking on semi-permanent campers at Lawson's. - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • TRAILER BE GONE The clock is ticking on semi-permanent campers at Lawson's.

"We think we have a strong argument for redeveloping a formerly developed area, but we're still waiting to hear from the scientific review panel," says Lawson.

One idea under exploration would put the land into the purview of the California Coastal Conservancy. In that scenario, the state agency would partner with the Lawsons, loan them the money to stay afloat and then collect the loan back at a low interest rate.

"But money is getting hard to find," Lawson says. "Our planner is trying to work with some of those people and get something done here."


To say that it's a bustling day at Lawson's Landing is to say that people have been mildly interested in the recent goings-on on Pluto.

And we're in a far-off place in the Marin County galaxy here, in the northern reaches where Tomales Bay spills out into the Pacific Ocean by way of Bodega Bay. Today, the place is positively bopping with mid-summer recreation, and it's a hoot to behold.

On this particular Saturday morning, Tomales Bay is coming right off an ultra-low "clam tide," and the clam diggers were out there all morning. Vogler says some of those clam diggers are a little less welcome than others. Lawson's has been victimized by its own popularity.

"We started to attract other clientele from the Bay Area that didn't have any concern for conservation for saving some for next year," says Vogler.

A couple of front-loaders stand at the ready to "splash" boats from their trailers into the bay. The fishing pier that sticks out into Tomales Bay is loaded with crabbers and fishers; there are buckets full of red crabs, people jigging little fry for use as live bait. A lone dude with a surf-fishing rig sits in a beach chair way out on a long sand spit at the edge of the bay, waiting for a bite.

As if on cue, a woman points into the bay to a spot that had earlier been loaded with clammers. Gesticulating wildly and yelling at no one in particular, she exclaims, "Is the game warden around today? Can you please save some for our grandchildren?"

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