Housing developments raise concerns for the Bolinas environment


For the past 170 years, a ferry and winding roads over and around Mount Tamalpais have brought vacationers to Bolinas as a summer destination. Smiley’s is the oldest continuously operating bar in the state, and the Bolinas Market and the gas station were built in the early years of the 20th century. There was even a hotel downtown, but it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and never rebuilt. Houses built in the downtown area were a mix of year-round residences and summer retreats.

The Big Mesa, a 300-acre former dairy farm, was purchased in 1927 and divided into 5,336 lots, each measuring 20 feet by 100 feet. The lots were famously sold for $69.50 as a promotional gimmick by the San Francisco Bulletin. No effort was made to align the lots with the natural features of the land—its geology, topography, soil characteristics or its water supply. 

Despite the promotional price of land, Bolinas grew at a slow pace until the 1960s. People came to town to build or buy homes for a number of reasons: to get away from the summer heat in the Central Valley, to have space to build artist studios, to swim and surf, or to raise a family away from the turmoil of city and suburban life.

In 1967, the downtown and Big Mesa water departments merged into the Bolinas Community Public Utility District. Under an abatement order to stop sending untreated wastewater from the downtown sewer into the Bolinas Lagoon, the BCPUD board applied for an Environmental Protection Agency grant to build a wastewater treatment plant to treat sewage from Stinson Beach and Bolinas. The treated water would be conveyed by a pipeline over the Big Mesa and discharged beyond Duxbury Reef. Stinson Beach withdrew from the project, sized to accommodate a population of 8,000, and developed its own on-site waste management system. On its own to solve the wastewater treatment problem, BCPUD bought 90 acres of land on the Big Mesa, where the wastewater treatment pond system has been in place since 1973. It treats wastewater from the downtown and some outlying homes.

At the same time, the BCPUD board recognized that, at the rate that people were applying for water meters, demand would soon outstrip supply, particularly in drought years. A moratorium on issuing water meters was passed by the board in 1971. The moratorium was challenged by the Pacific Legal Foundation, but the BCPUD prevailed after a two-decade legal battle that cost a considerable amount. The moratorium has successfully discouraged large-scale development.

In 1975, locals wrote the Bolinas Community Plan, which contains a vision for the future, defining how, where and at what rate the town should grow while honoring the town’s landforms, landscapes and ecological uniqueness in all planning. The Gridded Mesa Plan of 1985 added specific information about the 300-acre former dairy farm, pointing out its topographical features—heavy soils, high water tables and slow drainage—and identifying those areas that are unsuitable for housing.

When the Bolinas Community Land Trust presented a list of affordable housing developments to the community, the map showed that they were clustered in one small area comprising about 6 percent of the total Big Mesa. The plans included many more bedrooms, accessory dwelling units and junior accessory dwelling units than the particular lots can support to maintain safe and healthy living conditions. 

According to a 2018 biological assessment, trees and shrubs have been removed in recent years from the undeveloped lot on Overlook Drive, an area of coastal scrub habitat that abuts the sewer treatment ponds. As a result of this work and recent “grubbing” that left the land barren of vegetation, the assessment found the property devoid of ecological and biological values. This eliminated its ecological and biological values, so that the biological assessment performed after the fact declared it devoid of value. Another proposed development in the same neighborhood, on Aspen Road, would destroy one of the best examples of coastal scrub on the Big Mesa.

Community members with Mesa United in Support of Solutions for Equitable Land-use, also known as MUSSEL, want to see that the long view of Bolinas development as specifically envisioned in the Bolinas Community Plan and the Gridded Mesa Plan is honored. MUSSEL asks that each potential affordable housing development be thoroughly reviewed for short-term and long-term impacts to the neighborhood. It is important that any undeveloped lots with high ecological value be preserved. Neighbors and community stakeholders should be involved in reviewing all developments prior to submission to the county. The most successful development projects move forward when community concerns are meaningfully and thoughtfully addressed.


Genie McNaughton has lived in Bolinas off and on since 1973. She currently serves on the BCPUD land stewardship committee.