Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 30, 2003

Voting for a low profile
The Bay Area town got unwanted attention over a ballot measure.

BOLINAS, Calif. -- This scenic village on the rugged coast north of San Francisco makes no secret about cherishing its privacy.

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 Bolinas.

"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 pumpkins.

"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 main street.

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 houses.

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 1.38-square-mile limits.

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 up." home page   
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