Ranchers bid for use of 
oyster housing and shack

07/31/2014

The Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association is asking the National Park Service to delay any demolition of the buildings soon to be vacated by Drakes Bay Oyster Company so their utilization for retail, education and housing may be considered during the preparation of the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan.

After the Supreme Court rejected the oyster company’s appeal, the park service will no longer have tenants on the shores of Drakes Estero, and could bulldoze the retail building as soon as Friday and the worker housing at a later date. Ted McIsaac, the president of the ranchers association, hand-delivered a two-page letter drafted by a committee to Superintendent Cicely Muldoon last Wednesday requesting the retail sales building, public restrooms and five multifamily housing units “be used on an interim basis to benefit the ranchers and the public” at least until their future can be debated in the management plan. 

The association letter reiterates how the buildings could be used to facilitate changes advocated in the ranchers’ lengthy scoping letter submitted in June: diversification of small-scale row crops and additional livestock species would require more employees, who will have to find a place to stay; processing facilities and farm stays would require new construction; and “the visiting public” should have more opportunities to learn about West Marin’s history of ranching and farming—purposes that could all find a place in existing buildings, ranchers said.

The ranchers association “has made it clear to P.R.N.S. that these uses are vital to the long term viability of the ranches,” the letter states. “Allowing these buildings to remain to continue to provide benefit to the ranchers as they have in the past, to allow a transition from oyster worker housing to ranch worker housing, to transition from oyster processing to local value-added farm product processing and to re-focus the interpretive services at the site to focus on history and sustainability of the working ranches located in working landscapes of P.R.N.S. would help demonstrate the P.R.N.S. commitment to the viability of the ranches.”

According to the 1980 General Management Plan, the buildings on the east bank of Schooner Bay at the head of the estero are located within a five-acre “oyster farm” subzone (one of four special use zones, along with the pastoral lands and lands not to be acquired) whose fee title was purchased by the park service from Charlie Johnson in 1972 for $90,000 in exchange for a 40-year reservation of use and occupancy. 

The retail building and housing are outside any wilderness or potential wilderness area, the concerns that led to the demise of the oyster company’s harvesting operation, the letter notes. 

With an estimated 50,000 annual visitors to Drakes Estero, including kayakers on guided trips, the ranchers do not want to see “ample septic capacity” from two systems, “abundant water delivered by a certified public water system,” “adequate parking, public restrooms, walk-in refrigeration and health department approval” for food processing, storage and sales all go to waste. 

The retail shop, a one-story wood-frame building with a front-gable roof, was possibly built by the Jensens when they moved the oyster company from Creamery Bay to Schooner Bay in 1948, and it was used as the original shucking shed when the Johnsons took over in 1958. Approximately 20 feet by 16 feet, ranchers said the building could “establish new on-farm retail opportunities, including the preparation and sale of local food items,” at a time when many are advocating a return to the “truly diversified and dynamic” Shafter-era agriculture.

Back then, farmers on the peninsula raised hogs, sheep, goats, chickens and turkeys alongside their cattle, and row crops made Point Reyes the state’s “artichoke capital.” But because the cows thrived on the rolling grasslands and weren’t prey for the local coyotes, ranchers narrowed their herds to one species, specializing in beef and later dairy. 

The seashore has permitted row crops, chickens and farm tours or stays on only some lands, and ranchers have asked that those approvals be applied to all the farms universally; such diversification could benefit from an active farm stand. Ranchers have also suggested permits for processing facilities—a harkening back to the Shafter-era model of on-farm processing—for vegetable packing, butter churning, cheese making, slaughter, butchering or packing.

“As agriculture changes, staffing levels need to change as well,” their scoping letter said. “This recovery of the Shafter-era agriculture would most certainly require that additional farm workers also return to the landscape.” 

With more housing on-site, the letter continues, traffic would be reduced, a historical legacy of living at the work site would be restored and an affordable housing crisis in the region could be alleviated.

A shortage of units and a desire to improve living conditions are already existing strains felt on many ranches, said Leelee Thomas, a county planner who has been collaborating on a pilot project to replace, rehabilitate and construct worker housing. 

“People are commuting from Sonoma County, from Sebastopol or Petaluma,” Ms. Thomas said. “The funding has really been the largest constraint. There’s some expenses, like upgrading a septic system, that all of us who live and work in West Marin know are a huge cost.”

The housing at the oyster farm could circumvent the “difficult, time-consuming and expensive” process of building new homes, the ranchers argue. Set back from the water and protected from the winds by a low ridge, two frame houses and three mobile homes—along with the additional septic system the Lunnys built—could accommodate multiple families.

Because it is still involved in negotiations, the park service could not comment on the ranchers’ suggestion, said Melanie Gunn, the seashore’s outreach coordinator.

The ranchers’ most recent letter was blasted by Gordon Bennett, the president of Save Our Seashore. Without signatures, he said it presented Kevin Lunny’s interests—as one of the only ranchers with “retail products appropriate for such a farm stand” and within a convenient distance of the farm—as a collective benefit “in the name of his fellow ranchers.”

Mr. Lunny said he’s sold products from other ranchers at the oyster shack in the past, and added that while other ranchers may not currently have products available for retail, a shop could prove beneficial, as many consider diversifying their operations.

The structures are also in an inappropriate location, Mr. Bennett said: “dilapidated,” the buildings “unceremoniously sit atop a former Miwok encampment with high archeological value,” are in a high-risk area for flooding as sea levels rise and are within coastal wetlands. If the environmental assessment for the management plan concludes retail sales are appropriate, the Bear Valley Visitor Center would be a better location, Mr. Bennett added.

Replicating the existing assets elsewhere, however, would “require extensive permitting and construction,” the ranchers assert in the letter. “Here, only upgrades would be required.”

Nichola Spaletta, whose family runs the historic C Ranch, said the ideas in the letter would fit into a living landscape, “to have areas in the seashore to stop, park, rest, picnic, get educated, kayak, wash up, have a great view and even perhaps have a place to live.” A retail store could sell flowers (as the oyster farm has offered in the past from Rich Grossi’s M Ranch), beef (as has been available at the shack from the Lunny’s G Ranch), salmon, halibut and crab caught near Chimney Rock, along with goat, eggs, vegetables and jam, she said. 

Having the history and products of working ranches on display “is important to how and why ranching has continued today and how it came to be part of the Point Reyes National Seashore,” Ms. Spaletta added, and “why the Pastoral Zone is preserved for the generations of family ranching that have been here for well over 100 years.”