West County Gateway idea riles Occidental residents

  • Jacques Levy leads a group upset with proposals by county parks officials without input from the Occidental community.

    (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

    Indigenous owners Matt Reynolds, left, and Scott Leonard are offering their QR code technology to other producers of fair trade clothing.

    (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

The fate of the aging and underutilized community center in Occidental has spawned a bitter controversy that has split neighbors over questions of how best to use public lands — and about the limits of government power.

Residents of the unincorporated town were surprised to discover earlier this year that their community center appeared to have been designated as the future hub of something called the West County Gateway, an expansive vision for linking more than 11,000 acres of parks and open space, using trails and shuttle buses, from Jenner to Bodega Bay and inland to Occidental and Monte Rio.

The humble community center, a nondescript concrete artifact of early '70s municipal architecture that is now the regional home for the YMCA, would be reborn as an Adventure Day Lodge, with a visitor center, bike and hiking equipment rentals, food service and public gathering areas.

Local critics learned of the two-year-old concept in January, when it came up as a minor detail in a county Regional Parks presentation to the Board of Supervisors. The news set off an uproar, with some neighbors arguing that unaccountable bureaucrats were making secret decisions about the community's destiny, and others arguing that risk-averse NIMBYs were threatening progress by refusing to discuss reasonable options for the future.

"It's caused a little bit of division," said Pieter Myers, one of the residents supporting the gateway idea. "People I used to be close to, we view each other with a little bit of suspicion because we're on different sides of the issue."

An ad-hoc committee calling itself the Town Hall Committee, meanwhile, has been gathering what information it can about the gateway idea and has called a June 4 meeting to discuss the findings. Members say it appears that the Regional Parks agency has invested considerable time and energy on the plan without giving area residents any idea of its scope or implications in terms of new tourists, cramped parking and increased traffic on the narrow local roads.

Many people in Occidental "don't want a government agency coming in and changing it in such a radical way," said Jacques Levy spokesman for the group.

But it is not entirely clear if the West County Gateway is even a real plan. Whether the flap is the result of a secret government plan or a comedy of errors depends on who you ask.

"You've got to recognize that their concerns are about a concept that is unfunded and unplanned and is not a project at this time," said Caryl Hart, head of the county's Regional Parks Department, which owns the community center. "Right now, the only thing we're involved in is the Occidental Community Center."

Hart says the West County Gateway was nothing but a concept paper her office dashed off back in 2011 to apply for a small community outreach grant from the National Park Service. Into that paper went an assortment of big ideas about interconnecting the vast patchwork of county, state and federal lands that sprawl across the Sonoma Coast. Much of that land is inaccessible to the public, often simply because it lacks basics such as parking, trailheads, restrooms or even access roads.

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