College finds new avenues to rehabilitate Bolinas lab

05/10/2018

In the wake of pressure from its life and earth sciences department, the College of Marin has reconsidered stepping up to repair the marine lab that has sat derelict beside the Bolinas Lagoon for more than a decade. Though the department challenged administrators’ argument that a state law barred them from investing funds in the lab, President David Wain Coon has since reversed his position, saying the school has an “ethical obligation” to clean it up. 

The site, which includes a two-story house, a water storage tank, a shed and the only public dock in town, has been closed since 2006 due to a number of critical health and safety issues, including black mold infestations. It’s a former Coast Guard lifeboat station that opened a century ago next week.

Last summer, excitement sparked over the possibility that the community could take over ownership or management of the property, but at that time the college had asserted it could not invest any money. 

In a presentation to the board of trustees last month, Mr. Coon said administrators had overlooked several avenues for putting money into the lab. 

Regulations pertaining to the Field Act provide that no “‘school building” shall be constructed, rehabilitated, reconstructed or relocated within 50 feet of the trace of an active fault. (The San Andreas Fault runs through the nearby lagoon.) Yet the act’s definition of “school building” exempts buildings that, like the lab, are used solely for outdoor science and conservation classes. 

Mr. Coon said the college is awaiting a response from the Division of the State Architect to confirm that the lab is indeed exempt. If that agency disagrees, he said the college could take to litigation. 

There are still a number of other potential obstacles to rehabilitating the property, however. Another earthquake fault zoning act will likely require the college to conduct a costly geologic survey, for instance, but Mr. Coon remains hopeful. 

“After possessing the property for over 60 years, at a minimum I believe we have an ethical obligation to clean it up regardless of whether we ultimately keep it or we end up needing to surplus it,” he said in his comments to the board last month. “In the end, we will need to come to terms with what it would mean to clean it up. That could involve removing some or all of the structures on the property or it could mean removing some and reopening others.” 

As next steps, Mr. Coon recommended that the college proceed with an assessment of the structure that includes cost estimates and permitting and approval requirements. As for funds, he pointed to Measure B—which in 2016 generated $250 million to the college for facility upgrades—and a newly unearthed trust fund that still has $240,000 earmarked for the lab. 

Mr. Coon said that the college received 10 payments between 1996 and 2002 from the Mauer Trust Fund, whose late trustee had specifically hoped the funds would benefit the marine lab.

Joe Mueller, a senior professor of biology at the college who has rallied his department around saving the lab, was pleased about the recent developments. 

“The board appears to be much more serious about the college making high-quality field science opportunities available to our students than I previously thought,” he said in an email. “In the end, we will be pleasantly surprised to find that the extent of the work necessary to bring the Field Station back online is really very minor compared with the great benefit to the students in obtaining transfer and career opportunities because of it.” 

Rehabilitation of the property is supported by numerous Bolinas stakeholders, including the school district, the Rod & Boat Club and the county’s Bolinas Lagoon Advisory Council.