The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 30, 2003
for a low profile
The Bay Area town got unwanted
attention over a ballot measure.
Calif. -- This scenic village on the
rugged coast north of San Francisco makes no secret about cherishing its
For years a vigilante squad known as the
"Bolinas Border Patrol" has removed all road signs leading to
the counterculture enclave, hoping that strangers remain strangers. An
unwritten law forbids businesses or landlords from advertising outside the
area for fear of attracting outsiders.
The Marin County community of 1,263
people has long tolerated unorthodox behavior - beatniks, hippies,
self-actualization gurus, unleashed dogs on the beach. It is a
compassionate citizenry: The town maintains a streetside bin next to the
health food store where all can help themselves to donated clothing,
cookware and household items.
So it hardly seemed out of character
this summer when Jane Blethen, an eccentric artist who uses the nickname
"Dakar" and is known for decorating herself with cornstalks and
speaking in semi-coherent sentences, circulated a petition to put an oddly
worded measure on the ballot proclaiming the town's love of nature.
Known as Measure G, the nonbinding
ballot issue read like a poem and directed the Bolinas Community Public
Utility District to adopt the following statement as its policy:
"Vote for Bolinas to be a socially
acknowledged nature-loving town 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. Dakar. Temporary and way to save life, skunks
and foxes (airplanes to go over the ocean) and to make it beautiful."
Though the language was curious, the
upshot did not seem out of step with the protectionist sentiment in
"It seemed harmless," said one
resident who, like many people here, did not want to be named to avoid
drawing attention to herself. "I signed it because I didn't want to
hurt Jane's feelings." Of the 908 registered voters in Bolinas, 263
signed the petition - nearly three times what was necessary to get on the
Nov. 4 ballot.
Blethen, who is in her 60s, occupies a
different dimension from most people. She reportedly came to Bolinas about
20 years ago and initially lived in the bushes but now stays in the spare
room of a good Samaritan. She wears burlap headbands and face paint and is
sometimes seen around the post office, sipping a cup of coffee. She was
spotted the other day carrying a staff from which dangled several small
"She doesn't cause a problem in
town," said Vic Amoroso, owner of the Grand Hotel, a secondhand store
and two-room bed-and-breakfast. "She shouts a little."
"I am an artist, and Measure G is
from an artist's point of view," Blethen told the San Francisco
Chronicle before the election. "There are too many machines and
technology, and there needs to be some place for the disappearing animals.
What we have is conflict between the airplanes flying over, the skunks and
foxes. I'm saying each of them needs their place."
The measure won, 314-152.
But such a peculiar ballot issue
violated a cardinal rule of Bolinas by attracting the attention of
outsiders, particularly in the aftermath of the state's gubernatorial
recall election. The wire services picked up the story, and it ran around
the nation and internationally, inevitably as a short item in a
strange-but-true tone - another kooky California story.
Many people in Bolinas were immediately
filled with regret as a new wave of curiosity seekers found their way to
the picturesque village, in spite of the absence of road signs.
"Generally when the news media do a
story on Bolinas, they make it look like a circus," said Paul Harris,
the owner of Bolinas Real Estate, one of a handful of businesses on the
Amoroso, a member of the public-utility
district board, had advocated the board adopt Blethen's statement and
sidestep the need for a public vote, avoiding the publicity. But he was
unable to get the support.
"If I seem a little hostile, it's
because I am," Amoroso said. "We should have never put a stupid
thing like that on the ballot. It makes us the object of derision. It
brings attention to Bolinas in the very worst way."
There is a good reason people in Bolinas
do not want attention. Like many coastal villages in Northern California,
it is a beautiful place whose peaceful charms are threatened to be undone
by its very attractiveness.
Here, the rolling hills of Marin County
descend sharply to the sea, as though Scotland and Hawaii were merged into
a single place. A lagoon formed by the San Andreas Fault is filled with
waterfowl. Often shrouded in fog and fragrant from eucalyptus trees,
Bolinas enjoys a temperate climate that encourages flowers to grow in
great cascades over the fences that surround the clapboard and shingle
Originally named Jugville, Bolinas
served as a 19th-century boat landing for lumber sailing to San Francisco,
15 miles to the south. The timberlands later formed the nucleus of Point
Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area,
which surround Bolinas - and prevent it from expanding beyond its
In the 1960s, cheap housing attracted
nonconformists from San Francisco, and Bolinas became an artists' colony.
Writers Thomas McGuane and Anne Lamott spent time in Bolinas, as did
novelist and poet Richard Brautigan, who committed suicide here in 1984.
In recent years, the 45-minute drive to
San Francisco on windy Highway 1 has become less onerous to a new
generation accustomed to telecommuting. In 1989, Susie Tompkins, cofounder
of the Esprit clothing company, bought a 44-acre property facing the
lagoon. In keeping with the spirit of the town, she erected a large,
lighted peace sign on the barn. Martha Stewart also was reportedly
interested in a lot in Bolinas in the 1990s.
But developers have been thwarted from
building on any new lots since the public-utility district enacted a
moratorium on new water meters in 1971. The moratorium, upheld by the
courts, has acted as a curb on development. Houses that sold for $20,000
in 1970 now routinely sell for more than $500,000.
Despite the effort to play down the
appeal, the development pressures are relentless. The two restaurants in
town have expanded in recent years. Parking on the weekends is nearly
impossible to find - the village seems like a thicket of "no
parking" signs. It seems to have gotten especially busy in the last
year since a surf shop opened, attracting beginning surfers by advertising
Bolinas' gentle beach on the Internet, thereby disobeying the informal ban
on advertising "over the hill."
Some residents still try to fight the
trend, bad-mouthing Bolinas in the hope that outsiders will stay away.
"The only good story about Bolinas
is a bad story, so you can't believe anything anybody tells you,"
said Amoroso, the owner of the two-room Grand Hotel.
As Amoroso busied himself, the telephone
rang and he dealt with the caller curtly.
"She said she had read about
Bolinas in the paper and wanted to rent a room," he said.
"That's the wrong thing to say to me. I told her we were all booked