Bolinas? Baloney!

The effort of one small town to remain untouched by time has bred enmity and disaffection as surely as it has produced anything else

Here's the first thing you notice: The town is very small. Coming into it for the first time is kind of like seeing a movie star on the street -- you've heard so much and seen so much about it that you expect it to be larger than life. Make no mistake: Bolinas is not larger than life. It practically isn't even life-size, given the expanded expectations of 1995 America. Why, there aren't any malls at all! Not even a strip mall! If you recall, this non-growth of the town was a key element in the community plan. And in this respect, the Bolinian Utopian Movement (BUM) has been an absolute success. Go ahead, hold up the Before and After shots. With very few exceptions, what you see in 1971 photographs is what you get in 1995. But it's not an accident or an act of will that's made that part of the Bolinian Dream come true. It was a pre-eminently sophisticated political strategy, and it's left long, deep, and divisive roots in the very community it shaped.

We're talking, of course, about the water moratorium.
In 1971, a publicly elected board called the Bolinas Community Public Utilities District slapped a moratorium on the town and declared that, hence forward, there would be no new development due to a shortage of water. With that one board vote, Bolinas derailed -- perhaps permanently -- the chugging engine of economic development.

"You have to hand it to them. It's probably the only utility district in America that takes its powers that seriously," says Marin County Supervisor Gary Giacomini, who has represented Bolinas for the last two decades. "What you see is what that community wanted for itself. It really wanted to be left alone, to be left the same size."

"It was the key to preventing significant build-out," says Paul Kayfetz, a longtime BCPUD board member and a man who, in the past, had the habit of hanging up on reporters who called to ask him to talk about the town. He's mellowed, apparently, going so far these days as to invite reporters to check out his solar house and to sample a taste from his wine cellar.

"There's just really limited development in the town, and I just can't see getting worked up about that," says Phil Buchanan, the BCPUD water manager who, at one time, was a KSAN disc jockey, back in the days when it was a hip rock 'n' roll station.

Right now, Bolinas has 580 water connections allowed, according to Buchanan. Chalk one up for the community plan.

But not everyone thinks the water moratorium was such a wonderful idea, or that it was necessary at all, from a water point of view. The water for the town comes from the Arroyo Hondo, a creek in the Point Reyes National Seashore deeded to Bolinas in 1925; during the 1970s, the town built two earthen reservoirs, increasing treated water-storage capacity to 860,000 gallons, which was enough to get Bolinas through the 1982 washout of its water transmission system.

And not everyone agrees, even superficially, about the effect that the water moratorium has had on the town.

One of the people who doesn't think the water ban is such a utopian ideal is Charles Gilbert, a retired Sacramento schoolteacher who honeymooned in town with his wife, Phyllis, in 1954 and returned in 1955 to buy a tiny slice of Bolinas, a plot up on the highlands, called the Mesa, above the Pacific Ocean. The Gilberts planned to retire in Bolinas, and were ready to build their home in 1969, when "unexpected deaths in the family," as Charles Gilbert puts it, forced them to forestall. By the time they were ready to go again, the water moratorium was in place and the Gilberts were out of luck.

In 1982, Charles Gilbert sued the Bolinas water district, saying the water moratorium should be lifted. After nine years in court, BCPUD prevailed. "The Court finds that there is a solid factual basis for declaring a water shortage emergency and, thus, for imposing a moratorium which precludes potential water users from tapping into the water supply which is both fragile and limited," Judge Richard Hodge wrote in an Alameda County Superior Court ruling in November 1991.

These days, Charles Gilbert, who taught mentally handicapped adults in Sacramento for 36 years, says he has lost interest in the Bolinas property.

"I haven't been involved in it much for the last three or four years since my wife died," Gilbert says. "My kids go there, they have picnics on the lot."

Another person who isn't a big fan of the water moratorium is Louise Pepper, a real estate agent in the town and a member, by marriage, of one of the oldest Bolinas families, the Peppers.

"With the moratorium, a lot of the people that owned vacant land up here have been able to do nothing but pay taxes. In actuality, it's taxation without representation, so in that respect it really isn't fair. I've never been convinced of the validity of their claim of a water shortage. They could have developed it."

But in another respect, Louise Pepper isn't complaining at all about the moratorium. And that's because she thinks -- and many economists would agree -- that the moratorium, in making most new development impossible, effectively raised the value of developed property. High house prices aren't something a real estate agent frowns upon. But while Pepper is willing to credit the water ban for the current $500,000 price tags on some Bolinas homes, others -- like Kayfetz, who defended the ban for years in court against retired schoolteacher Gilbert -- won't allow that Bolinas real estate values have had much to do with growth limitations. This is a very serious issue in Bolinas, one that can provoke cold stares if broached the wrong way.

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