Bolinas getting mixed messages on marine lab

10/26/2017

Just as Bolinas residents were brainstorming possible community uses for the College of Marin’s defunct marine lab on Wharf Road, college staff last week voiced a strong wish that the property be restored as an educational lab for use by the college and other institutions. 

At a public meeting in Bolinas last Wednesday, the college’s president said the current preferred option was to keep ownership of the property and sign a long-term lease with a nonprofit that could raise enough money to restore it.

The site, which includes a two-story house, a water storage tank, a shed and a public dock, has been closed since 2006 due to a number of critical health and safety issues. The college intimated in recent months that it was ready to sell or transfer ownership locally. Efforts by the community to assume ownership of the lab are years old, but sparked in 2008 and again in 2015, though they never received a positive response from the college. 

At last week’s meeting, co-hosted by the college’s president and Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni—who has stated his hope that the college consider offering the lab to the community—people with ties to the college dominated the conversation. Many stated how influential the lab had been in their own careers as marine biologists or described the importance of field-based education at the college. 

Joe Mueller, a senior professor of biology, criticized the administration for neglecting the field station, which he described as a “diamond in the rough” and an essential component of the community college’s curriculum. 

Some Bolinas residents agreed that it should be kept for educational purposes, including Kent Khtikian, who volunteers for numerous scientific institutions in the area. “The lab can aid the Bolinas community, but also should be used for the advancement of science,” he said. 

The college’s president, David Wain Coon, stated multiple times that he wanted to find a “win-win.” 

Two options are currently on the table, Mr. Coon said: the college could surplus the property and transfer ownership to a new entity, or it could keep the property and sign a long-term lease with a nonprofit that would be able to raise enough money to rebuild the lab. He called the latter the “preferred option.”

Mr. Coon said a state law prohibits the college from using public funds to repair the building because it is located near major fault lines. The college discovered this backstop in 2005, when it attempted to use bond money for improvements at the site. 

Though private funds could still be used, costs for repairs are extremely high. Just to abate and demolish the property could cost $1 million, Mr. Coon said. 

The property is also within a tsunami warning area, a flood zone and a rock slide area, and the two-story house is infested with black mold and mildew.

Mr. Coon said another public hearing will be held in the near future on the east side of the county to get more input. 

For some Bolinas residents, the conflict within the college’s community was concerning. “What seems to be dominating and eclipsing the conversation about what to do with this property is internal discord within the college,” one local said during the meeting. “We are going to need some kind of resolution between the college and this group of educators before moving forward, because we don’t want to get caught in between.” 

At the suggestion of Supervisor Rodoni, the Bolinas Community Public Utility District formed a subcommittee this summer with nine local representatives to explore the possibility of the community taking ownership of the lab. 

Their conversation has revolved around what it would take to generate funding to restore and maintain the site and which organization or group might take the lead. At the meeting last Wednesday, a representative said the committee had discussed the benefits of continuing its use for educational purposes versus converting it to housing or a community meeting space or some combination of all the above. 

But after hearing the flood of comments on Wednesday, the director of the Bolinas Community Land Trust, Arianne Dar, said it appeared the college would likely maintain ownership, while seeking community support. “What I’m hearing from you is that the college can’t afford to do the upkeep,” she said. “What we are looking at is that our community might end up footing the bill. I hope that, as guests in our community, you will actually work with us in a partnership.”