Coastal Post Online

May 2001

Will Ft. Baker Become A Tourist And Traffic Magnet?

By Carol Sterritt

The fundamental purpose of all units of the National Park Service is to conserve the scenery and the natural historic objects and wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. -From National Park Service Organic Act, 1916, as amended 1918.

One oft-cited principle of physics states that two separate objects cannot occupy the same space. This applies to two visions as well. Thus we have a battle over an area just to the south of Sausalito. The players are the National Park Service on one hand, and the City of Sausalito on the other. The area being fought over is known as Ft. Baker, and to its west, Marin Headlands.

Ft. Baker and the Headlands are under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service (NPS). However, unlike many of the jewels in the NPS' domain, this parkland has remained virtually undiscovered by most Americans. From the Headlands, you can contrast the cliffs you stand on with the angular and glittery sight of San Francisco across the first beginnings of the Pacific Ocean. At Ft. Baker you can launch a boat or kayak, ramble through village-like streets with a sense that the past surrounds you, or simply enjoy a park-like setting. In both venues, you will do this fairly undisturbed. On an average weekday, if the weather is just a smidge foggy, you might be able to pretend that you have the place to yourself. Presently, it is the people of Marin's own side yard.

Since Reagan's years, the NPS has had a two-fold mandate. It must preserve those lands under its jurisdiction, but also must establish fiscal plans so that its vast holdings will somehow pay for themselves. Time itself has created many of the difficulties-historic buildings tend to fall apart despite their historic uniqueness. Repair and refurbishment are expensive. Considering this, the NPS came up with the idea of creating a conference center, whose guest attendees can occupy any one of up to 350 rooms. At the same time, the Discovery Museum would be expanded to the tune of $15 million. The NPS holds out the hope that doing this will create the revenue needed to maintain the Headlands.

Sausalito city officials, and many Sausalito citizens, believe that the prime reason for having a National Park system is to sanctify environments capable of reminding all of us what unspoiled and underdeveloped habitats are like. If the cost for doing so shoves the pristine areas into development, then hasn't the Park Service failed in what should be its most sacred obligation, that of keeping a bit of wilderness in all its parks?

Added to their concern is the fear that traffic will increase in direct proportion to the changes made.

Now the NPS has put out its Request for Proposals. Four firms have responded, with one offering plans that include a swimming pool. (It was the fear of intrusive traffic resulting from his proposed swimming pool and health center that helped defeat Bill Ziegler's Sausalito City Council attempt three years ago.) The mediation efforts between the City and the NPS fell apart in early April. Unexpectedly, the mediator announced, more to the Park Service than to Paul Albritton, Sausalito Mayor, and Amy Belser, Sausalito Council Member, that nothing could be gained by having the talks continue. Belser and Albritton found this out only after the Marin Independent Journal called and asked Ms. Belser for her reaction to this decision.

Belser has been examining this issue and attending pertinent meetings for the past three years. She feels a sense of loss over the way things turned out. Her good faith efforts took her time and energy and offered little in return. Brian O'Neill, Superintendent to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, will neither affirm or deny that it was Sausalito requesting binding agreement on development mitigation that led to mediation efforts being called off. (The Park Service has never offered anyone such a binding agreement.)

And no one involved in the NPS' end of things seems aware of how vulnerable the NPS might be to legal charges of lack of public input and due process. The Citizens Ad Hoc Committee on the Ft. Baker issue, formed last May by Hon. Lynn Woolsey, has had few regular meetings and those were all held prior to December 15, 2000. The gatherings held after the first of the year were one-sided presentations, not meetings. The Ad Hoc Committee was to undertake serious responsibilities, such as examining the traffic studies, helping to establish a maximum car reduction plan, preparing project development requirements, etc. Since the meetings were not held in sufficient number, these things were not done. Also, Betsy Cutler, the designated Chairwoman of this group, has simply told the committee members questioning her about the meetings that meetings have not been held due to lack of interest.

Jane Woodman, who was on the Ad Hoc Committee asked me, "Why haven't local environmental groups decided to take on this issue-especially since NPS is ignoring its own mission statement?" And in the Friday April 20 edition, the SF Chronicle reporter, Rains, stated that "Sausalito could allege violations of the National Environmental Policy Act or the Endangered Species Act (with regard to the mission blue butterfly) or the statute that created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area." This according to Sausalito City Attorney Voelker.

Furthermore, citizens like Nancy Osborne, Pat Shea and Dorothy Gibson have expressed concerns that many public input meetings that took place turned into presentations offering little give and take. In fact, the meeting regarding Ft. Baker that I attended several weeks ago did allow for intense public feedback, only the feedback was directed toward considerations of possible scenarios regarding traffic into and out of the Headlands, without the Conference Center itself even once coming up for discussion. Gibson is also distraught over the interruption of the Bay trail by possible NPS' actions, as well as migration routes for birds.

However, supporters of the Ft. Baker plan offer a point of view that contains certain common sense attitudes that complicate the situation. If Sausalito does undertake litigation, which will of course have quite an expense attached to it, there is the chance that the City might prevail in court. But the fact remains that meanwhile the meter is running: therefore the project might be made more expensive. Thus the NPS' design plan might require further tweaks, so that the project becomes even more over-bearing and less environmentally friendly for each month of delay. Will Sausalito's attempt to find answers in the courtroom be a case of "damned if we do, damned if we don't?"

One member of the 250 member "Friends of Ft. Baker" group, Peter Van Meter, expressed "my enthusiasm now that it has been narrowed down to four firms." Van Meter went on to say that he felt neutral on the issue until the 120 days had passed and the winning firm's name was announced. Then and only then did he believe that the surrounding areas including Sausalito would know what plan would actually be commissioned, and what plan we needed to examine. "Only then will there be something real to talk aboutÉ" He bases his trust in the Park Service on their statements that the chosen proposal will "be an exceptional quality proposal to serve as a model of sustainability in terms of the environment." He noted that the NPS' own wording in their RFP reads, "Create an exceptional adaptive reuse and historic preservation project. Create a model for sustainable development and operations. Minimize vehicular traffic and parking. Minimize impacts on the site and adjacent communities." Since he trusts the NPS, he finds these words reassuring.

Former Tiburon mayor, Karen Nygren, would probably not share his trust. She concurs with Jane Woodman that the natural beauty offered by the Headlands could be trampled under foot (or perhaps, under parking lot) by the development plans. She offered her realization that with most tech firms moving north to where commercial real estate is cheaper, the new economic engine expected to drive Marin County could well be massive increases in tourism. And that possibly it will be the Park Service spearheading the tourist increase. She envisions a half dozen or so parking lots for shuttle clusters, including one at Manzanita, expanded parking at Larkspur Ferry, a Tourist Kiosk in Southern Marin. She wonders whether most Marinites are aware of this possibility. Are they ready for the tourist invasion?

So there you have it. Two visions for one place. In a way, it is like the graphical paradigm wherein you look at a physical design, and if you cock your head one way, you see two vases. If you cock your head the other, two faces. Except in this particular instance, both sides see their vision as the one affording the better result. Which side of the paradigm do you see?



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