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Saving a slice of heaven - Eden that is West Marin


Carl Nolte
San Francisco Chronicle

We were off on vacation for a couple of weeks. We didn't go to New York, Paris or Rome. None of those places.

We went across the Golden Gate and over the hill to West Marin, 20 or so winding miles from the nearest traffic light. We spent afternoons eating Marin oysters and drinking Marin white wine at a funky store and restaurant. A brisk summer wind blew off the blue Tomales Bay. This is the life, I thought.

It always amazes me that there are places like West Marin in the 21st century, so close to the city and the 7 million people who live around San Francisco Bay - and yet so far away.

There are still dairy ranches in West Marin, still rolling hills, green in winter and tawny brown in summer, still little towns off the main roads, still a sense of what the Bay Area used to be like when my father was a kid, long ago.

Of course nothing is the same, not really. Point Reyes Station is getting to be so cute it can make your teeth ache. There are close to 40 inns and bed-and-breakfast places in West Marin. The Osteria Stellina restaurant in Point Reyes Station has a national reputation, a destination for foodies.

Despite all that, West Marin is still rural, though keeping it that way was a near thing. The agents of progress always had an eye on the area. In her charming book about Stinson Beach, Joan Reutinger tells of plans to turn that corner of the world into a small city of 28,000 souls with a 1,600-berth marina in the Bolinas Lagoon.

Farther north, the idea was to transform the shores of Tomales Bay, building new schools, shopping centers, homes for maybe 100,000 people, and reached by a San Rafael-to-the-sea freeway and an airport.

None of that happened, because West Marin is a bit different. It is still small: Inverness is the biggest town, with 1,474 residents. None of the other towns has a population over a thousand.

"To understand West Marin and the Point Reyes Peninsula in particular, the area's insular character needs to be understood," writes Philip Fradkin in a new book about the coast.

"There's a spirit out here," says Amanda Eichstaedt, who is the general manager of KWMR, the local radio station, which fades away at White's Hill, the eastern frontier of the area.

The first battle, in 1962, was to preserve the Point Reyes Peninsula, a place writer Harold Gilliam called "An Island in Time." Clem Miller, a congressman who represented Marin, was the architect of the Point Reyes National Seashore. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area followed 10 years later, which preserved the Olema Valley and east shore of Tomales Bay.

But still, says Dewey Livingston, a local historian, people began to realize that just preserving parkland wasn't enough. The rural character of the land had to be saved, too. That was done by zoning - one house every 60 acres - so that a third of Marin County is zoned for agriculture.

However, agriculture - mostly dairy ranches - needed more room. And another organization - the Marin Agricultural Land Trust - was established in 1980; it buys development rights from ranchers.

"We pay the farmer the difference between what the land would be worth if it were developed and what it is worth as ranch land," said Constance Washburn, the group's education director. Since 1980, Malt has paid $50 million for development rights. "We have protected 67 family farms and 42,000 acres," she said. The program, she said, "has made it possible for agriculture to have a future here."

There has also been an agricultural shift. In 1997, only 312 acres were farmed organically in Marin; in 2009, 52 farms were certified organic on 18,000 acres. They produce grass-fed beef, famous cheeses, upscale chickens. It is a niche market, perfect for West Marin.

But there is a price. Restricting development meant the little towns can't grow and housing prices have gone through the roof. Ranch workers can't afford to live where they work.

"Old-timers go to town, and they don't see anybody they know," says Livingston.

"We still live in heaven out here," he said. "Even if it is an artificial heaven."