Fred A. Bernstein

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Controlling Growth by Controlling Water

In Bolinas, a water meter sells for $310,000

Published in The New York Times, October 9, 2005


Bolinas, Calif.

BLESSED with a quaint downtown and some of the most impressive scenery on the Pacific coast, this town is largely unknown even in San Francisco, just 20 miles south. To keep that from changing, residents have a habit of tearing down highway signs that so much as mention Bolinas.

The same urge to remain pristine has led to one of the most extreme anti-growth policies in the nation. For more than 30 years, Bolinas has refused to authorize a single new water meter, needed for hooking up to the town water supply. There are now 580 meters - the same as in November 1971, when the moratorium began.

That has made water meters the most valuable currency in town. And so late last month, a water meter was auctioned for $310,000. For that, the buyer didn't get a house, or even land on which to build a house - just the right to hook up to the municipal water supply, which comes from the Arroyo Honda, a spring-fed creek about five miles north of town.

"It's unbelievable that someone would have to pay that kind of money just to get water - in America," said Lorenzo Martinez, who runs a construction business in Bolinas, but said he can't afford to own a house there.

Then he added: "But if I had the money, I would have bought the meter myself. This is the place I'd like my daughter to grow up."

The auction might seem to be an example of profiteering, except that it was conducted by the nonprofit Bolinas Community Land Trust, which received the meter when the county condemned a house in town. The group has promised to use the money to finish turning an old service station in the center of town into affordable housing.

The water meter's new owner is Steve Hodge, a stonemason with a 4-year-old daughter who owns a plot of land in town and hopes to build a house there. Mr. Hodge was the high bidder, but Don Deane, a member of the land trust board, said that the board might have picked him over "some big fat high-roller, with plans to build a 20,000-square-foot house." The irony of the sale by a nonprofit group is not lost on residents in this community of 1,600. "The water meter money is being used for affordable housing, but the reason there's so little affordable housing in the first place is the water meters," said Dieter Tremp, an artist who lives in Bolinas.

Mr. Tremp was one of a dozen locals having dinner on a recent Thursday at the Coast Café, opposite Smiley's saloon and down the block from the Bolinas People's Store, an organic food market where customers arrive with their own paper bags. The look in town is pure 1960's.

Children are barefoot and dreadlocked; grown-ups wear tie-dyes and hemp. Peace signs are everywhere, including the estate of Susie Tompkins Buell, the fabulously wealthy founder of the Esprit clothing company. Her peace sign, which is about five feet high and hangs on a barn on her property, lights up at night.

But if Bolinas is a place where in many ways time has stood still, real estate prices have not. According to B. G. Bates, a real estate broker, the seven houses on the market right now range in price from $920,000 to $8 million. The $920,000 property is a 1,200-square-foot cottage on less than one-fifth of an acre.

Even the likelihood that a house will fall into the ocean doesn't deter buyers. A house on an escarpment that geologists say is likely to collapse within the next 10 years just sold for $650,000, according to Ms. Bates. The buyer bought a separate plot of land, in another part of town. That way, if the house becomes uninhabitable, he'll have a place to connect his water meter.

As in many upscale American communities, workers - including teachers, firefighters and police officers - say they can't afford to live among the people they serve. Mr. Tremp said the price established by the water meter auction is a stark reminder of the affordability gap. "There aren't too many jobs in Bolinas that will let you buy a half a million dollar water meter," he said. "It's very unfortunate."

On the other hand, "if there weren't growth controls, this would be just another huge suburb," said his wife, Lauren Pollak, a local elementary school teacher. She added: "It's a huge dilemma."

The dilemma caused controversy among the seven members of the land trust board. Mr. Deane, publisher of the liberal-leaning Coastal Post (a front page headline for September's issue was, "Bring the Troops Home") and the owner of Smiley's, is one of the few board members who will talk to the news media. (Others say that any publicity can only bring more people to Bolinas.)

According to Mr. Deane, the water meter auction was "divisive."

"Some people said, 'If you're for affordable housing, how can you sell a water meter for that much money?' " he said "We're happy to have this behind us."

Still, the board had hoped to get more than $500,000 for the meter.

Now it will have to raise more money to finish the garage project. The building, already partly occupied, contains two apartments for families, three live-work spaces, and three single-room occupancy units.

The moratorium on new water meters was the direct result of an oil spill off Bolinas in January 1971. Thousands of people poured into Bolinas to help scrub cormorants, murres, scoters, grebes and loons that had been coated in oil. According to the Bolinas Community Public Utility District Web site, some of the new arrivals "liked what they saw and they stayed."

"Educated, activist, oriented toward the countercultural, they understood the political process," the history said. In late 1971, their candidates gained a majority on the district's board and almost immediately imposed the moratorium.

In 1982, the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento brought suit to overturn the moratorium, which it claimed violated the rights of property owners. The town, claiming water was scarce, prevailed in the suit, but only after spending nearly $2 million on legal fees. Since then, Mr. Deane said, the moratorium has never been in danger.

And that means Bolinas is likely to remain a place where anyone with a water meter is wealthy. Ms. Bates, who moved here from Syracuse in 1974, said she recently received an unsolicited offer for her house "that would have allowed me to never work again."

When she turned it down, Ms. Bates recalled, "The broker who brought me the offer kept saying, 'Do you know what you're doing?' " But, Ms. Bates said, "Bolinas is home. I thank my lucky stars every morning that I live here."

Mr. Deane said: "Thirty-four years ago, I was opposed to the moratorium. But it preserved this community. Maybe it's a case where the ends justify the means."