A group of aging hippies and artists who endured eviction threats, arrests, lawsuits and a hardscrabble life on the water in a colorful houseboat community here is on the cusp of entering the mainstream.
The 38 households that make up the Gates Cooperative will receive a new dock, berths on existing docks and upgraded dwellings under a plan tentatively set for consideration by a San Francisco Bay regulatory panel next month.
This likely will be the last hurdle in a saga that began almost 30 years ago. The Gates Co-op, which once numbered 115 households, fought efforts over the years by owners of the Waldo Point Marina to oust them. The hardy counterculture community stood its ground, even during disputes that brought out sheriff's deputies. The houseboat residents once tried to stop construction at the harbor by bringing out a large barge in the middle of the night to block a pile driver.
But after years of discord and litigation, an agreement was finally hammered out among Gates Co-op members, the more upscale Waldo Point houseboat residents, harbor owners, the county, a bay regulatory group and the state.
"We switched our strategy," said Jane Koestel, project coordinator for Gates Co-op, who was arrested eight times in two years in the late 1970s. "We can't stop this marina, so ... we started negotiating."
Koestel, 56, who has lived in the ragtag community of houseboats of every description since 1971 and has raised two daughters there, said she once believed her group was making headway -- they won a five-year lease for their current location in 1983.
But in 1988, the lawsuits began. At issue was the state's insistence that the marina not encroach on proposed streets plotted by the state 100 years earlier when it was envisioned that the area would some day be filled for development. Although that never happened, blocks and streets were still shown on some maps.
For 14 years, there was a raft of lawsuits and no work on permits for new berths for the low-income Gates Co-op members.
In 1992, all sides reached an agreement, which was revised the next year, that included a land swap that gave the state open space in the marina and the harbor ownership of land under the docks and houseboats. The Gates Co-op also got space for up to 41 houseboats, although that number has decreased to 38 due to attrition.
In all, the expanded marina will contain 283 berths, a 1.26-acre shoreline park, a shoreline path and connection to an existing bike path, expanded harbormaster's office and additional parking.
Suki Sennett, president of the Floating Homes Assn., which represents residents of area marinas, and who also serves on a board representing owners of the houseboats at Waldo Point Harbor, said her group welcomes Gates Co-op residents who soon may be living in their midst.
"We've all gotten older and wiser," she said. "We're all very tired of this constant conflict with state agencies. We also as a community ... are very supportive of bringing in low- and moderate-income housing into our community."
Once the project is approved by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, work can begin to upgrade the Gates Co-op houseboats -- more than half of which are in poor shape, Koestel said. The Marin County Board of Supervisors endorsed the project in February.
A pool of funds, including $1.4 million from the Marin Community Foundation, has been set aside for the work.
But Lynn Berard, senior project manager for the Ecumenical Assn. for Housing in San Rafael, which creates affordable housing in the county, said "the work that needs to be done far exceeds the money available."
She said her group, which is acting as the fiscal agency for the foundation, is trying to find other money to upgrade the houseboats -- some of which were not built to code.
Residents already have begun work to put their wood and metal houseboats on concrete barges, which prevent deterioration during low tides when the boats rest on the mudflats.
Koestel's boat, which has two bedrooms and a bathroom downstairs and a kitchen and living room upstairs, seems to be in good condition. But she said she is worried about the stairway, which won't meet current codes because it's too steep.
Koestel has hookups for electricity, sewage and water. She uses propane gas to cook on her kitchen stove and a wood-burning stove for heat. She also has satellite TV.
Her 17-year-old daughter shuttles between her mother's boat and her father's houseboat nearby.
"I hope all this construction results in something comfy," Koestel said, adding that the average age of residents is 50. "But I don't want to sacrifice character for a bunch of square boxes."