By Mark Prado, @MarkPradoIJ 

Environmentalists who want to bolster endangered coho salmon populations are hoping to launch an initiative to purchase homes along San Geronimo Creek, make them fish-friendly, then return them to market at affordable prices.

The proposed Community Salmon Land Trust would be a nonprofit made up of environmental, affordable housing and salmon fishing advocates, among others, said Todd Steiner, executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Salmon Protection And Watershed Network. The county could also play a role, he said. The homes would be bought as they went onto the market.

“We purchase one of these modest houses, we green it with best building practices, we replace its septic system, we restore the habitat along the stream and create a forest buffer,” Steiner told the Independent Journal Editorial Board Tuesday.

The house — but not the land — would then be sold to a buyer. The land would stay in the nonprofit’s domain so the creekside could remain protected.

“The house costs less because you are not buying the land,” Steiner said. “Someone who needs to buy an affordable house could now apply for a loan on it.”

The plan is long term — over a 25- to 50-year period — and targets 80 lots along the creek.

The trust is conceptual at this point, but is being developed, said Steiner, who added it could work toward helping the coho and county affordable housing issues. Peggy Sheneman, who sits on the San Geronimo Valley Stewards Board of Directors, said the plan would be extremely costly and might have little impact to protect coho.

Based on current home prices of between $675,000 and $795,000, Sheneman estimates it would cost $65 million to acquire 10 percent of the lots along the length of the creek.

“It doesn’t make any economic sense,” Sheneman said. “Why spend $65 million to have SPAWN be the middle man? Why not use that money for owner-assisted grants to work on making improvements for coho?”

Many San Geronimo Valley residents believe their community is being unfairly blamed for the demise of coho, saying the real problem rests with climate change and unhealthy oceans, where the fish spend much of their lives before returning to local creeks. They note that many of the populations of fish along the coast beyond Marin have struggled.

But it’s generally acknowledged by scientists that development along creek habitat is one reason why coho populations have plummeted in the past several decades.

SPAWN, the county and locals have dueled in and outside the courtroom in recent years on the contentious issue.

Marin’s salmon run was damaged in 1953 when Peters Dam was built across Lagunitas Creek, creating Kent Lake. The dam was later raised in 1982 in the wake of the 1976-77 drought.

While the reservoir provided more water for people, it choked off water flow for coho, reduced gravel coming downstream in which the fish lay eggs and allowed sediment to stay stagnant in creeks, reducing oxygen.

Further development along creeks and road construction only served to worsen conditions for the fish, which were said to be in an “extinction vortex” by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2010.

Read online at the Marin Independent Journal.