Debate Is ‘Remote’ in Bolinas

Times Staff Writer

The turning point for this quirky little Marin County beach town can be traced to a 1971 recall vote in which elected officials were removed from the local utility district and replaced with a quasi-revolutionary board.

The result was a radical no-growth policy that froze the Bolinas population in its tracks at about 1,300 and steadily raised the market value of a water permit here to a staggering $265,000 -- the amount paid at a recent auction.

With that kind of historical backdrop, you might think the pending California gubernatorial recall election would stir more interest here in the frontier land of direct democracy. But as usual in Bolinas, as well as in many other much more typical California small towns, local issues dominate the debates at the cafe tables and bar stools.


Fog-shrouded coastal towns like Bolinas, separated from inland California by rugged geography and maverick mentality, feel sequestered from the greater California debate.

“Sacramento tends to be pretty remote from Bolinas all the time,” said Burr Henneman, a marine environmentalist with the Bolinas-based Commonweal Ocean Policy Program. “There’s a lot of people who feel that what happens in Sacramento doesn’t affect Bolinas, no matter who is there.” The possible delay of the recall vote until March, said Henneman, had only added to the Bolinas electorate’s ennui.

“Really, it’s been a disappointment,” said David Liebenstein, the 44-year-old military veteran who owns the Coast Cafe here. “We had more discussion about ‘Jihad Johnny’ -- Johnny Walker Lindh.” Lindh was the local Marin County Muslim convert, dubbed by the cable news networks as the “American Taliban,” who was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Bolinas’ hottest flap these days is a controversial new sign that Liebenstein has installed on the roof of his restaurant. The sign says: “Coast Cafe. Think Globally, Eat Locally,” but Bolinians, as the folks here are called, are not fond of signs bringing attention to their burg.

After decades in which local activists systematically removed direction signs to Bolinas on nearby California 1, Caltrans finally just gave up putting them there. To get to Bolinas, a collection of clapboard houses and shops nestled on a peninsula about 30 miles north of San Francisco, you have to know where you are going when you set out.

Another issue of modest local concern is something called Measure G, a stream-of-consciousness initiative that was placed on the ballot by Bolinas resident Jane Bethen. Bethen is a local character who wears burlap undergarments and crowns made from bark, newspapers and palm fronds.


Beloved by the townspeople, she is sometimes difficult to decipher.

“Vote for Bolinas to be a socially acknowledged nature-loving town,” says her free-verse ballot petition, “because to like to drink the water out of the lakes, to like to eat the blueberries, to like the bears is not hatred to hotels and motor boats.”

Bethen, who sometimes uses the pseudonym Dakar, gathered 263 signatures from the town’s 1,000 registered voters for the measure, which concludes, “Temporary and way to save life, skunks and foxes (airplanes to go over the ocean) and to make it beautiful.”

The Measure G initiative, set for the Nov. 4 ballot, targets the Bolinas Community Public Utility District.

But not even utility manager Philip Buchanan, a former rock-station disc jockey, knows exactly how.

“It seems to be saying, ‘Let’s all get along,’ ” said Buchanan, who has been with the utility district for 23 years and presents a leery, long-suffering persona to visiting reporters. “The crux seems to be about airplanes.”

For her part, Bethen concedes that some of the language has to do with her childhood in Minnesota, which at least explains the blueberries, which are not native to coastal California.

The fact that the issue finds itself before the Bolinas Community Public Utility District is no surprise. Practically everything of importance in Bolinas does. Liebenstein’s Coast Cafe signage problem, for example, was the featured event of a meeting earlier this month that lasted until 11:30 p.m. That the Gray Davis recall election has so far not been discussed is itself a telling statement about the lack of interest it holds for Bolinians.

After its success in the 1971 recall election, the five-member Bolinas utility district quickly established itself as the town’s most powerful local institution and principal public forum. Because the community is unincorporated, there is no mayor or city council. So the utility district has taken on many of those functions, including acting as a target for letting off steam or making political points.

Buchanan has seen the utility district board adopt an El Salvadoran sister city and declare a nuclear-free zone.

“As far as I know,” said Buchanan, his tongue firmly in cheek, “we have had no transportation of nuclear and fissionable nuclear materials since, or before, for that matter. Personally, I think we should mind to our own knitting.”

The keys to the utility district’s power are water and sewage. In a desperate attempt to block a major highway and harbor development plan for the area, a handful of local residents discovered that they could effectively control growth by limiting water and sewer permits.

After winning control of the board in 1971, the new utility board members, including two residents from a nearby communal farm, issued a moratorium on new permits that stands today. One of the young activists was Orville Schell, the Bay Area writer and China scholar.

Schell, currently dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, wrote “The Town that Fought to Save Itself,” a book that chronicles the Bolinas anti-growth movement.

“Bolinas has a reputation for being a little daft,” said Schell, who still owns a ranch home in the community. “But actually what it has done by way of growth control and community management kept the character of the town from being blasted to smithereens.” Key to the effort, said Schell, was the initial recall election that was used to seize control of the utility board.

However, although it successfully restricted population growth, the Bolinas movement also had the unintended consequence of helping to drive housing and land prices far beyond the means of the modest farming and countercultural population that lived here at the time of the utility district coup d’etat.

In 1975, the year Schell’s book was published, the median household income of the town was about $8,000. Large homes were available for less than $20,000. According to the 2000 census, the median household income here has risen to $53,187, and the average home value is about $465,000, with some of the older Victorian homes selling for as much as $2 million.

“Many of the people who can pay those kind of prices are wealthy weekend people from San Francisco or summer people,” said Don Deane, saloon owner and editor of the local Coastal Post newspaper.

The water moratorium also had the effect of turning water permits into the town’s most valuable commodity. Although no new permits are allowed, they can sometimes be sold and transferred if the original home slides off the ocean cliff or is deemed uninhabitable.

That was the case earlier this year for the water permit that sold for $265,000. Another water permit sale is pending that may top that figure.

The consequence, mused Buchanan as he prepared recently for another contentious meeting, is that tiny little Bolinas, bastion in the fight against gentrification and mindless growth, “may have the most expensive water meters in the world.”