The Coastal Post - June 2000

Marin Public Trails Going Private

By Huck Will

Over the past fifteen years hundreds of miles of Marin county trail, dedicated to public use have been sold, abandoned, fenced and obstructed by County officials, and property owners with adjacent homes. Civic minded builder/developers dedicated these trails to the public's use in the early 1900s while subdividing the enormous tract then known as Rancho Sausalito.

The original plat maps included metes and bounds descriptions of the resulting lots, and a myriad of intersection trails and community parks. The trails provided local homeowners with shortcuts, horse, and recreational access to woodland areas. Most were dedicated "now and forever" to the public use, then to the county of Marin.

Beginning in the 1950s the county began to formally abandon the trails, claiming insufficient funds for maintenance, and citing fear of lawsuits as the public became increasingly litigious, and hordes of hungry lawyers began moving into southern Marin.

This ruse did not prevent the Almonte community, parts of Tam Valley, and the City of Mill Valley from protecting a small portion of their trail easements, but by the seventies a new miscreant joined the party... the dreaded NIMBYS (Not In My Back Yard).

This group, often posing as environmentalists discovered Southern Marin's bucolic environments and fresh off the boat from the Northeast began fencing, obstructing, and obfuscating the trails so that not even school kids would venture to use them to avoid traffic on public roads, many without bike lanes and/or sidewalks.

The speculative fever in real estate, driven by the Realtors, easy money from the coke trade, and fast bucks from investment banking were creating double digit returns for any speculator capable of accumulating $10,000 for a down payment. The same speculators began pressuring the County of Marin to abandon the neglected trails adjacent to their properties, in many cases arguing that they would maintain them, and take on the liability them. The investment returns could be impressive.

In most cases the easements were 10-12 feet wide and extended the entire length or width of several adjoining lots, sometimes culminating in a public park. On a typical 150 X 100 foot lot, a trail easement, 10 feet wide could add another 1500 square feet of land. With standard floor to area ratios allowing 30 percent lot coverage, an additional 500 square feet could be added to an exiting house. Currently, Mill valley houses average $350 per square foot, so the abandoned trail would be worth as much as $175,000 to the lucky or litigious homeowner ($350 per square foot x 500 square feet). Yet the County was giving away miles of trails, and selling community parks they did not want to maintain.

One glaring example took place in 1998 when the City of Mill Valley allowed an enormous house to be constructed directly on the Pipeline Trail. Over half the trails in Tam Valley have already been lost to encroachment or abandonment. Only Almonte (behind Tam High School) has carefully cataloged and protected their trails, largely through the efforts of the Almonte Improvement District.

One resident of Tam Valley ended up in Federal Court, represented by Tony Serra, after the National Park Service cited him for disturbing a plant community, trespassing, and audio disturbances as he maintained a public trail dedicated in 1916, connecting the intersection of Spring and Cabin Drive to the Southwest corner of his parcel. A neighbor had paved the continuation of this public trail to provide a driveway to his carport, then erected gates and fences preventing anyone from further passage. Although the County had never formally accepted the dedication for this trail, public works assured the trail maintainer that it was within his rights to maintain the public trail.

Based on this assurance, he proceeded to hire two CCC workers, one guest worker and rent-a-truck, one chain saw and a pruner. On July 5, 1998 at 10 a m, the workers began clearing scotch broom, French broom, and trimming limbs less than eight feet above the ground. This provided enough clearance for the owner's wife to ride her horse from their property a short distance to the beginning of the Miwok trail. Within an hour, one neighbor began photographing the trail work and the workers proudly posed for the pictures, thinking he would be pleased with their work. Once finished, the enraged owner told them he was calling the Sheriff and the CCC workers fled into the woods knowing the National Park Service would be close behind. The property owner quit the cutting and helped the field worker drag the limbs up to Cabin Drive for removal.

He instructed the worker to wait at the house while he searched for the CCC workers. Within minutes a caravan of NPS 4X4's, and Sheriffs vehicles appeared on the site. Wilmore (the property owner) located the workers and drove them to Tam Junction to their vehicle. During his absence NPS Park Police impounded his vehicle, tools and the contents of the truck and impounded them at the Presidio as evidence of Disturbing a Plant Community, (a class B misdemeanor).

Five-thousand dollars later, the trees are in fine condition, the National Park service spent another $3000 re-surveying the boundary, and the County of Marin has shirked any responsibility for the trail. But it now exists.

Wilmore will be holding an Arbor Day Party on the site this Saturday beginning at 5 PM, and asks that attendees bring a native plant. BBQ will be provided, kids, dogs and horses are welcome.

The address is 569 Marin Avenue at Harvest Lane. From above take Marin Drive to Cabin, park at the intersection for Spring and Cabin and walk down to the 300 foot Monterrey Pines. The fences will be open and Sarah Wells and her Band will perform.

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