Protecting coastal village character

09/22/2016

Recently I read “Down a Narrow Road” by anthropologist Jay Dautcher. In the book, Dautcher talks about how governments gain influence over communities in order to serve their own interests, especially in communities where there are strong personal and community identities and where residents are connected to the land.

He writes, “Personal and collective attachments to place are a critical basis of identity in general, since claims to political entitlement are often understood and advanced through them. If a state can undermine the cognitive and material bases supporting this feeling of belonging, the ability of groups to advance political claims to political entitlement is weakened.” Interestingly, one technique Dautcher says governments use to break a people’s connection to place is to convert sacred or important community sites to tourist destinations.

As I focused on the Local Coastal Program and its influence on our community, I started seeing things through Dautcher’s view. Our coastal towns are not just a place for commercial services. Main Street is a social nexus for the community; on a typical trip to the post office or market, we encounter and talk with many friends and visitors, sharing directly in the rich life of a small, rural town. 

Yet from Friday through Monday in Point Reyes Station, visitors greatly outnumber residents. Locals avoid coming to town because of the physical displacement and loss of intimacy and sociability. Meanwhile, tourism is promoted in West Marin and there is little to no management of its impacts. As a result, our connection to place, cognitively as well as physically, is breaking. I am concerned this disruption will erode the vitality of our town, leaving a physical setting void of the spirit and care that locals provide and visitors seek.

Though I believe the county and California Coastal Commission are not consciously undermining the future of coastal communities, their policies and programs are likely to have that impact. It is important that we look carefully at the language in the L.C.P., as its policies and programs take precedent over individual community plans. It may be comforting that the L.C.P. talks about preserving community character, yet the specific character of each community is not defined. It does, however, give an overall statement of what constitutes character; this is located within the background section of Community Specific Policies, on page 81. It notes:

“The Marin County Coastal Zone is home to distinctive towns and villages that have a strong sense of place (see Map 16 – Community Areas). The character of these communities depends in large part on their physical setting, the nature of land uses within them, and their visual appearance.”

There is no acknowledgment of the role of local populations, their values, their quality of life or their personal connections and contributions that have created and continue to nourish the character of coastal communities. Thus, to maintain character, the L.C.P. implies that local populations are without value. 

I often think about our town as a coral reef, built on layers of living tissue. Destroy the living coral, and you lose the reef. In order to protect the character of each coastal village, the L.C.P. needs to broaden its overall character definition into one that embodies and protects the true cultural and social nature of coastal community character.

Randall Fleming, an architect and photographer, lives in Point Reyes Station, where he serves as chair of the village association’s design review committee.