Development risks at Coast Guard complex


As I read about converting the Coast Guard housing complex to affordable housing, I just have to ask the elephant-in-the-room question: What is the sewage plan? Many of your readers may not remember the battles over a sewage plant in Point Reyes, back in 1989. I took a role in opposing the whole idea on the grounds that 1) it would be an environmental disaster waiting to happen if it was built, as it had to be, right on top of the San Andreas fault at the most sluggish end of long, shallow Tomales Bay and 2) it would catastrophically change the character of our town.

There was a triumvirate of supporters. First, local ranchers and developers who dreamed of the profits to be made if land in town could be zoned at higher densities. Second, local businesses, always hungry for more customers. Third, the Coast Guard, which built its housing facility without a sewage system and had to truck their effluent up to the Two Rock facility.

We were accused of getting in the way of progress and (god forbid) “zoning by infrastructure.” You see, one of the only things keeping West Marin from rapid urbanization are the septic limitations. The old-boy developers saw the possibility at last of the four-lane freeways and the cloverleaf over Point Reyes Station that big-thinkers conceptualized and drew up before the national seashore became a reality.

The issue came to a crescendo at a high-attendance town-hall meeting. There was obviously overwhelming opposition, and there were no compelling reasons in favor, and the issue was dropped. The fear mongering claims by developers that septic systems were failing all over town were disputed by the county health department. The Coast Guard tried to bring it up again five years later, but the pig did not smell any better, and it was dropped and never came up again.

But developers never sleep, and I fear they are already lining up to use the altruistic sentiments for an affordable housing project as a wedge to at last get some kind of sewage system that will allow the high-density zoning they have always dreamed of. Affordable housing, like all social welfare efforts, is tricky. Other people’s money often has strings attached. The devil is in the details. 

I still regret that, 10 years later, I did not take a more active stand against the so-called affordable housing project that did go in right behind town. I let myself get talked out of opposition by well-meaning town leaders who put out the hope that some of our beloved but poor local community members would be able to afford a house at last. I should have asked more questions. 

The project went forward, but the financing was not properly secured—it was all empty promises—and newly elected President George Bush cancelled the funding just after the project was started. The houses mostly sold at market rate, several to absentee owners. Few locals got a chance. It was a development scam, and I felt hoodwinked. I’d hate to see something like that happen again, especially since time has kind of caught up with us anyway, in the form of social media, demographics and relentless business marketing bringing the unprecedented quantum leap in tourism we have experienced over the last few years. We have moved out to the limits of our infrastructure again, and good solutions to the traffic are not likely to come from business owners or our developer-oriented county leaders.

Preserving land involves an inherent contradiction: high demand for the healthy and beautiful location drives prices up. But affordable housing is part of a healthy community. It is a problem all over the country. Solutions easily tempt the laws of unintended consequences.

Vigilance is a must!


Richard Vacha is a Point Reyes Station resident, a craftsman, a nature appreciator and a philosopher.