West Marin, meet Wendi Kallins

David Briggs
CANDIDATES: Wendi Kallins founded Safe Routes to Schools in 1999 but recently scaled back her hours with the group because she wanted to "get back out into broader issues."  

In 1979, Wendi Kallins, a Forest Knolls resident and self-described political nerd who is running for the open supervisor seat in District 4, read a story that changed her life. It was the effort to create a "solar village" that would have used drastically less energy than other neighborhoods, in large part by focusing transportation on walking, biking and electric cars. The effort failed, but Ms. Kallins continued to work on transportation issues. 

She also owned a now-defunct newspaper based in Fairfax for five years, called The Fax. (“Fax machines came out while we operated it. People would call, going, ‘I'd like to buy a fax machine,’” she recalled.) After it folded, she wrote a column for the Light for a decade. 

In 1999 she founded Marin Safe Routes to Schools. The first Safe Routes program in the United States, it encourages and creates ways for schoolchildren to arrive at school by greener means. Last weekend, the Light sat down with Ms. Kallins to talk about how she brings different groups together through Safe Routes, about local issues she's learned about through community roundtables she hosts, and about other issues in the race.


Point Reyes Light: When did you come to California?


Wendi Kallins: I first came out to California in 1969. We were hitchhiking and someone picked us up and took us to Mount Tam. Now, I am from flat Ohio. I was like, “Oh, my God.” When I was done traveling, I decided to come back because of that experience.

I graduated from Sonoma State with a degree in sociology and then spent two years studying planning—not to get a degree, but because I was involved in planning issues. 

One of the things that happened to me was an article in ‘79 in the Pacific Sun about this wonderful idea for Marin Solar Village. It was Sim Van der Ryn and Peter Calthorpe’s idea: the concept of building homes that recycled everything and used solar energy. [The Village] had a circulation system for biking and walking and transit. It was a social integration. I just went, “Wow. This is it.” I had been protesting against things up until then, and all of a sudden this is something I could be for. It changed my life. 

I got involved with the planning group; I went back to school and studied planning. I put on an energy fair in the Valley. I got involved with the group that was trying to get Solar Village happening. We put solar panels on roofs and weatherized homes. It was called Solar Central. Then all of us started specializing. 

My interest was land-use and transportation, but particularly transportation, because how we travel sets the stage for everything else. If we’re only getting around by car, then we’re spread out. If we’re walking and biking and taking transit, then we can leave the land open. I was on the transportation committee of the Marin Conservation League, and I started promoting the train in the late ‘80s. 

[When] Steve Kinsey ran for office, I was his volunteer coordinator. When he got elected, I felt as though it was time for me to make a living. An environmental [PAC] called Sonoma County Conservation Action created a nonprofit arm called the North Bay Environmental Institute, and they hired me to develop a broad-based coalition to bring the train back. While I was in that job, I went to a conference called Rail-volution, and I heard this guy named Dan Burton, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for Florida. He talked about how they did a citizen walk audit, where people went out and walked their communities and identified issues that kept them from being able to walk and bike. I went, “That's what I want to do.”

Being a transportation person, [I thought] what if instead of just having driver’s education, we taught children different ways they can get around. If we have an education program teaching children, and we do walk audits around schools, we have an incredible program. Well, someone had already thought of it in England; it was called Safe Routes to Schools. 

So we launched the first national Safe Routes to Schools program here in Marin County. We were one of two national models in the country. And we were highly successful. In two years we went from 21 percent walking and biking to 38 percent. We had nine schools. That was enough to convince Congress to fund a federal program and, since then, there's been like $1.1 billion in federal dollars distributed across the country. I was traveling all over the country teaching people how to start the program. In 2004 we got a sales tax in Marin, which created a permanent funding source for the program.


Light: What does the program do on the ground?


Kallins: We take a comprehensive systemic approach. I think that's key if you want to understand me and how I operate: I think systemically. When you're trying to change a culture, you have to look at it from all angles. So we go to the classroom, we send instructors in to teach kids about walking and biking and how to do it safely. We have volunteer team leaders in schools and they organize walking school buses. Then we have a task force that consists of parent volunteers, people from the school district and people from the city. We have parents and people from the school identify the safety issues and then our engineering team, with the jurisdiction’s engineering department, comes up with solutions and then we help them get grants. Through this process, we've funded over $30 million worth of improvements all over the county. 


Light: What was your biggest challenge?


Kallins: When I started, parents and cities were at odds with each other. The parents would say, “We want stop signs and speed bumps.” The city would go, “We don't do that.” The schools [were] not even involved; how kids got to school is not their problem. So we changed all of that. Now we have these robust task forces, and everyone is very engaged and involved in making it safer for kids to walk and bike to school. 


Light: Are there particular approaches you took in getting people to work together?


Kallins: When you're trying to get people together, you have to start at a place where they can agree. When someone comes in and says, “We want you to do this,” and then they come back and say, “We can't do that,” there's no more discussion. But if you say, “They're speeding on the street and it's not safe for the children,” and then we go out and do the walk audit, they go, “Oh my God, they're speeding on the street.”


Light: I want to ask you about another candidate, Mari Tamburo, who has been a vocal critic of Safe Routes to Schools. She has talked about her opposition to a sidewalk that was built in her neighborhood.


Kallins: We did what we always do: we had a community workshop and that’s how we came up with the idea to put a pathway on Evergreen. But it took a while for the county to find the money and when they did, they determined they could not do a pathway because there were major flooding issues on the street. If they're going to put something in, they had to deal with the flooding, and the only way to do that was with the sidewalk. A pathway would've looked more rural and I think it would've been more acceptable to neighbors. But they fixed the flooding issues, so there was a trade-off. 

You have to understand that this came out of a school called Marin Horizon. Right before we got the funding, Marin Horizon had a plan to expand and had major opposition in the community. They won the permit and expanded the school, and then the sidewalk came up. These were people who were mad about the school and so they said, “Well, we can't stop the school; we will stop the sidewalk.” It serves everyone, not just a private school. It's a suburban area. And it's pretty well received right now.


Light: What spurred you to run? 


Kallins: When Steve decided not to run I was devastated. He's just been so incredible. All those of us who are progressives were racking our brains about who could run. Someone said, “Why don't you run?” I said, “No, no, no.” Then it started nagging at me. This little voice went, “This is it.” 

You have 20 different communities [in District Four]. Well, I was running a program and 50 different schools, each one with their own unique needs and culture, so I'm used to working on that level of keeping track of so many things. As I'm going around doing roundtable discussions, I’m starting to acquire the same thing for West Marin—really getting an understanding of the issues in Muir Woods, or the issues in Inverness and Point Reyes. I've been paying attention to ranching for a long time. 

I read an editorial today [in the I.J.] talking about how we don't need cows or cows don't belong. That kind of environmentalism that says human activity doesn't belong in nature—doesn't recognize that we are nature. There was an agreement and the agreement was they would sell the land but be able to stay ranching. Yes, there were 50-year [reservations], but I think we all understood that this was an integral part of the agreement. That's number one. Number two: it was actually a windfall. We didn't just protect the open space and natural beauty. We protected a whole culture of agriculture. That is an integral part of West Marin. We lose agriculture in West Marin, what are we? We're a tourist place, which is what we are becoming. We've got an integrated community here and when you start pulling the threads out, it all falls apart. 

We need legislative relief. We need to write into the legislation for the park that these ranches will stay, and that there will be a management plan. I understand the need for a management plan. 


Light: That brings us to another issue. In the Valley there is conflict around development near creeks. Steve Kinsey has been critical of SPAWN lawsuits in that regard. 


Kallins: You know, SPAWN has done lots of good work to protect the creeks and certainly their restoration and habitat work and educational work is to be commended. There are other people who are doing it too; there's an organization called Trout Unlimited that has been restoring the creek habitat since 1970. We’ve been doing this a long time. 

The idea that you have to have a 100-foot setback, no matter what, is not recognizing that every property is different. For some properties, a 100-foot setback is the entire property. There are some forms of development that can be detrimental and others not so much. 

The creekside ordinance, as it's written, gives flexibility. Hardline environmentalists don't want flexibility because they don't trust people. They are sure that someone will do something bad. I'm not naïve; somebody might. The way I put it, there are jerks in the world, but we shouldn't be legislating based on the jerks. You have to start with the fact that the majority of people want to do the right thing. 


Light: Some people believe Airbnbs need to be regulated. 


Kallins: What’s happening in West Marin is alarming. It's as alarming as when we saved the seashore and downzoned agriculture to save the community. Our communities are at risk, and this time it’s the human resources that we are losing: people are being driven out. It needs to be regulated. 

I've been looking at all of the regulations up and down the coast. It goes anywhere from “You get your permit and you can do what you want” to not issuing any permits at all. Of course, it has to be approved by the Coastal Commission. In Santa Cruz County, they have a limited number of permits; once they've been issued, there are no more permits to be had. That's an intriguing one. Because for some people it's a way they maintain staying in their homes. But I think we need to regulate and limit it. Some people are buying property and just renting them out, and that's the big problem. 

You can't deny people the right to buy a home, but one of the things that has come up in discussion is taxing second homes and using that money for affordable housing. I think that's an interesting idea. If people knew they would be taxed for a second home, maybe they would think twice about buying a second home out here.


Light: What do you think about traffic issues related to tourism? 


Kallins: For West Marin, it's tricky. I was involved in the committee that created the Marin Stagecoach. It's still not as often or frequent as I'd like it to be, but it is what it is. From what I understand, people would like it to go to Novato, so I would work toward getting it to Novato. 

They tried to do a shuttle bus that would drop people at different points, and it didn't work. I am of the belief that just because we tried something once and it didn't work it doesn't mean you don't try again. With Muir Woods, you have a shuttle and it starts here and ends at one place and everyone is going to that location. Whereas when people come to Point Reyes, you got multiple beaches that people want to go to. Then they want to go eat afterwards. It's not simple to do a shuttle service, but I think certainly a start could be developing a shuttle service. It would take a lot of studying and, like Muir Woods, we have to work with the national park. 


Light: Are there any other issues of interest to you?


Kallins: I've been forming roundtable discussions. Everyone's talking about housing and emptying out of the home and community. Schools have come up. Senior needs.

Another issue I know because I've been talking with a lot of nonprofits is that funding got [reduced] for [Marin Health and Human Services] out here. So two things are going on: there aren't as many people serving the community, and the people who are working out there don't live here anymore. It’s not local people serving local people. So we need to find a way to restore funding for social services. The problem is that the way funding is allocated is by population. So West Marin will always lose. In order to deal with that, as an underserved rural community, we need to be treated differently. 

Coastal West Marin does not have paratransit service. So if you're frail and elderly, to get to the doctor appointment, you have to depend on the kindness of strangers. I want to look at how can we get paratransit service for West Marin. I want West Marin to be served, if not as well as East Marin, at least to the degree that it's better than what we have right now. 

Light: What do you think about pesticide use on public lands?


Kallins: I know it's a big issue. It's a very nuanced issue. I would like to see all pesticides phased out. I think we all would. Not just in public places; I would like to have regulations to ban them. But we're dealing with other ecological issues, invasive species, fire danger. The county is using an integrated pest management system and they have reduced the use of pesticides to almost nothing. But there are certain places where those systems are not working. [For instance] goats don't care what they eat, so they may eat endangered species. 

I certainly would like to get rid of pesticides: they're bad for us and bad for the environment. But you have to recognize there are other issues at stake. You will find that with every issue I am nuanced. You can't draw a line in the sand because the sand shifts.