As census shows exodus, younger Inverness residents uproot

03/15/2012

Darby and Chip Johnson are fourth and third-generation Point Reyes residents. Her great-grandfather emigrated from Yugoslavia and was among the first commercial fishermen on Tomales Bay; his grandfather came from Washington State and started Johnson Oyster Company in Drakes Estero. Darby and Chip grew up in the same Inverness community their ancestors helped establish—attending the same schools, fishing the same waters, running free on the same sprawling ranchland and rugged coastline.

Head cheerleader and football team captain, the two were teenagers when they first declared their love for each other at the Inverness post office. Two decades later, married and with three kids, the couple moved into Darby’s parents’ hilltop Inverness home—the house she grew up in, next door to the one where his father grew up—with a plan to subdivide the property’s five-acre plot and finally establish a local home for their own family.

But now the Johnsons are leaving. Fed up after more than three years of haggling with the county over permitting and fees that have run up to $100,000 for the subdivision, weathering complaints from neighbors unappreciative of the family’s active lifestyle—Chip trains police dogs for a living and the boys ride motorcycles on the property—and feeling pushed out of a community they see as increasingly shaped by older, wealthier part-time residents, the Johnsons are preparing to move north, to a property near the Oregon border. Chip is leaving next week; Darby and the kids will follow at the end of the school year.

The Johnsons, however, aren’t the only Inverness residents with moving plans.

From 2000 to 2010, the population of the Point Reyes Peninsula, including the unincorporated areas of Inverness, Inverness Park, Olema and Olema Valley, dropped from 2,332 to 1,774 residents, or 24 percent. Populations of areas to the east and south, including Point Reyes Station, Bolinas and Stinson Beach, were largely unchanged.

No single factor is likely responsible for the exodus, but many longtime community members like the Johnsons decry what they see as the area’s increasing “Carmelization”—the trend mirroring that of another coastal California town endowed with natural beauty and declining in population as its limited homes, increasingly owned by out-of-town part-time residents, become less affordable for younger generations of locals. According to the two census counts, the number of vacant housing units on Point Reyes classified as “for seasonal, recreational, or occasional use” jumped significantly over the same 10-year period, from 299 out of 1,275 total housing units (24 percent) in 2000 to 410 out of 1,388 total units (30 percent) in 2010.

“Can you imagine what’s going to happen here in 10 years?” Chip asked. “It’s going to be a bunch of old people with a bunch of bad attitudes and a bunch of Mexicans doing their yard work. That’s all it’s going to be.”

In 2010 496 housing units, 36 percent of total houses, were classified as vacant for any reason. Many believe the actual number is much higher.

“I’m convinced these are nominal numbers that don’t reflect realities,” Dick Lemon, the founder of the West Marin Fund, a nonprofit focused on addressing local issues, said. “The number of homes that are owned by part-time residents is higher than [30 percent], therefore the increase in that segment might be way higher in those 10 years.” Lemon believes the actual figure may be closer to 70 percent, a number often floated by residents.

Terry Donohue, a local realtor, said that for some property owners, maintaining a home without living in it full-time is a way of preserving a connection with a place they love. 

“I have a few vacation rentals that I handle. It’s one way for people to keep their homes. They’ve inherited it with siblings and they want to keep it, but they can’t all be here. It’s an option to generate income,” she said.

Donohue dismissed the notion that an increase in the number of homes serving as vacation properties has played a large role in the area’s population decline. She said West Marin has long been a popular location for second homes, and that the dynamic hasn’t changed much over the past decade. 

“Inverness has a long, long history of [second homes]. A lot of doctors, lawyers and academics from the East Bay—a lot of them had those houses as summer cottages,” she said. “It’s always been like that. It’s not new.”

Regardless, the area’s high housing costs mean life isn’t easy for young people trying to establish their own lives here. Four years ago, Luke Regalbuto and Maggie Levinger, now 28 and 31, moved to Inverness, where Levinger grew up, with an eye on realizing their longtime dream of owning property. While shuffling a number of other jobs—Luke currently works part-time at West Marin Pharmacy—the couple are in their third year of operating the fermented food business they started together. But they’re still struggling to stay afloat financially.

“We’re constantly faced with the question of should we just move somewhere where we can make ends meet,” Regalbuto said.

“Every few days we start to think: ‘Are we crazy for even trying to be here?’” Levinger added. “Just struggling this hard to live somewhere when our dreams of having land that we can grow food on are never going to come true here. It’s an interesting paradox to be in: to be in a place where you feel at home and to know that you actually can’t stay here and live your dream.”

After bouncing among rentals the past couple years, Regalbuto and Levinger moved in November into their current home—a charming, if creaky, multi-bedroom house in Inverness that is listed for sale. As they struggle to pay their bills each month the young couple is keenly aware they’re surrounded by vacant second homes owned by wealthy out-of-towners. 

“Obviously when people come and buy second homes, when wealth comes in to purchase land and property, it drives prices up,” Levinger said. “It also degrades the value of the community we live in. On this corner, that house across the street is a vacation rental and that house is a second home. Two out of three of our neighbors are not present.” 

Regalbuto and Levinger split the $1,500 monthly rent with another young couple. “It’s an unheard of deal for around here,” Levinger said. “But two of our bedrooms leak rain through the ceiling and there’s people coming through three times a week to look at the house. It’s month to month—we could have to leave at any time.”   

Latinos accounted for a disproportionately large fraction of the population decrease. In 2000, the census counted 436 residents as Hispanic or Latino; in 2010 the number was down to 262, a drop of about 40 percent. For a group generally associated with lower economic status, perhaps the decrease is unsurprising.

“Definitely it’s happening,” Ana Maria Ramirez, a former Inverness resident who moved to Marshall 12 years ago and still works at Inverness School, said of the apparent mass departure by Latinos. “I never had a chance to get a house—I can’t afford to live here. I have seven kids. All of them had to move away too.” 

One of Ramirez’s daughters, Ruth, moved from Inverness Park to Sonoma County in 1998, continuing to commute to her job at the Palace Market for three years. She was reluctant to move away from the town she grew up in, she said, but had to flee when an extensive housing search came up fruitless.  

“At that time I was a single mom with an infant child. The [owner of the] one studio that I did find was hesitant about renting to such a young single mother.”

When push came to shove, Ramirez said, she and her baby were forced to live in her truck, parked in Point Reyes Station, for a couple months. “Let me just say that I got to slow down enough to hear how beautiful the rain sounds on a windshield, how beautiful the stars look,” she said. “I can see how people lose hope and give up whey they’re in a circumstance like that, but thankfully having my infant daughter gave me the strength to fight and move on.”

Buoyed by the generosity of community members and friends, Ramirez and her daughter eventually found a suitable house in Cotati; she later began a new career as a banker.

It was Christmas Eve, Ramirez said, when she and her daughter were finally able to move out of the truck. “You know what? It was awesome,” she said of their first night in the new home. “It was an empty house—none of our furniture was there. I slept in the living room in a sleeping bag with my daughter and it was the best Christmas ever.”

Other Latinos have been forced to leave when their ranching jobs—and with them their affordable, employer-provided housing—have disappeared.

At B Ranch in Point Reyes National Seashore, the number of workers and their families living on the property has decreased from nine before the operation’s downsizing several years ago to just four. All the employees who work on the newly-organic dairy ranch also live there, and they don’t pay for housing.

“It’s gone down,” said ranch operator Jarrod Mendoza of the number of workers. “But then again we’ve gone down in the number of cows too.”

For the Johnsons, whose old-school folksiness and outdoorsy lifestyle seem cut directly from the mold of an Inverness of decades-past, the decision to uproot came after years of frustration with the area’s notoriously rigorous permitting system and squabbling with the county and neighbors.

“We’re $100,000 in [to the process of subdividing the plot],” Darby said. “We haven’t pounded our first nail. We’ve spent our life savings. We’ve lived with family for three years. We have fought each other, the neighbors, my parents. We’ve gone to the county to complain. When it’s all a struggle, you suddenly are like, ‘What are we fighting for?’

The Johnsons also bemoaned the loss of the more laissez-faire, family-oriented community they grew up in. Now, they said, the area has been permeated by a well-to-do, nit-picky part-time resident culture that no longer meshes well with young families like theirs. 

“When we grew up here there was soccer, baseball, everything,” Chip said. “Now it’s just people that live here during the winter and go to the Hamptons in the summer. It’s just not right. There’s just no community.

“They’re not helping the schools. They’re not donating any money. They’re not buying groceries from down at the Inverness Store. They’re not doing all that stuff, but what they’re doing is locking up the community for themselves to where people can’t move without worrying about an issue.”

Regalbuto and Levinger point to the county’s emphasis on preserving the area as attractive for tourism, often with strict building regulations, as at least partly responsible for the high home and living costs shackling residents.  

“Between second-homers and people coming in with money from outside, and the county, the government basically is totally f--king up the situation,” Regalbuto said. “They have created a situation where the primary mandate is visitor-serving facilities, [where] everything in the community has to be focused on those visitors who are actually derailing any sense of community.” 

“I don’t know of anybody who lives here who wants tourists to stop coming altogether,” Levinger added. “We’re hoping just for a balance. Can’t we meet in the middle and have it work so that visitors can come and there’s great services and great food and great beauty for them, and the people can [also afford to] stay here?”

Mark Essman, president and CEO of the Marin Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, said visitors who come to Marin typically have high medium family incomes—close to $100,000 per household—and spend on average $125 to $155 per person for day-trippers and $320 to $350 per person per day if they stay overnight. The influx of tourism-generated revenue both supports local industry and also likely drives up prices.

“Any destination-based area—Marin would be a destination-based area—is going to see some sort of economic impact,” Essman said.

Convinced she’ll never be able to realize her dreams here, Levinger is resigned to eventually moving. But she says she would stay if it were at all possible.

“It’s the land that holds me here more than anything,” she said. “This is the land of my birth—I have a real connection to it and I don’t want to have to leave it, but what I’ve realized is I’ll go somewhere else. I’ll make a connection with the land there.”

For Darby, the reality of leaving is much more immediate. Standing inside her garage on a recent rainy morning, the week before her husband departs for their family’s new home hundreds of miles away, tears welled in her eyes as she spoke about what it means to finally be leaving the land she has always called home.

“I could cry,” she said, her chipper voice beginning to crack with emotion.

“It sucks. My husband’s just pissed, but I’m sad. I still have my grandma here—my kids’ great grandma’s still here. It’s everyday life. This is home. I say that we have Tomales Bay and estero saltwater in our blood because that’s our ancestry. My husband and I started dating here in grammar school. We told each other we loved each other for the first time at the post office because there was no other place to hang out at night. That’s our life. And it’s devastating.”