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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.

Even the name West County Gateway is just a working title, she said.

Some area residents don't believe a word of it.

Levy points out that the very same details from the grant application, including the name Adventure Day Lodge, were written into the county's official Capital Improvement Plan as part of the project to rehab the community center. The Board of Supervisors just approved the latest version of that plan on May 21.

And while the county's website has made no mention of West County Gateway until this week, Hart or her staff has mentioned it in an offhanded way at least twice to the supervisors, most recently in January during a discussion of tourist improvements in Bodega Bay.

These tantalizing traces of evidence suggest to Levy and others that the parks agency has been viewing the West County Gateway as something close to a done deal, all without a single public meeting or any environmental review.

"Our contention is that the county and the community need to get together in a way that doesn't imply top-down dictation," he said.

Others in Occidental, however, aren't so suspicious of the the idea, and welcome some kind of tourist hub.

Heidi McNeal, longtime member of a group called Save the Occidental Community Center, said the gateway plan is far from perfect, but she appreciates the agency's effort to find some self-sustaining uses for the center. She worries that the sponsors of the June 4 meeting will simply oppose any change and kill off any effort to revitalize the property.

"We all get it: Nobody likes everything ... but let's hear where Parks are now," she said.

Supporters of the gateway concept have been trying to rally like-minded residents to attend the June 4 meeting to provide a counterweight to what they fear will be a largely hostile agenda.

"We have got to get together and talk about what's best and stop talking about what's bad about the gateway," Myers said.

The dispute appears to have come as a rude shock to Hart, herself an Occidental-area resident who has headed the county parks agency for just over two years. Previously, she was best known as a private activist pushing for land preservation and greater public access to recreational lands.

All she really wanted to do in this case, she said, was help the people of Occidental come up with some interesting way to keep the money-losing community center open. The sharp reaction to the resulting gateway proposal has made her realize that the lofty, high-concept ideas she espoused as a private citizen may not sit comfortably with her new job.

"Now that I am a government official, there are limitations," she said, with evident frustration. "I have to figure out what that middle ground is between assisting people in raising money and creating a sense that government is acting too quickly and is going to do something without any process."

Former west county Supervisor Eric Koenigshofer agrees, saying Hart's relative inexperience as a bureaucrat led to a process that "has gotten out of sync a little bit with the community."

Koenigshofer, an Occidental lawyer and a board member of the conservation-oriented Bodega Land Trust, has agreed to moderate the June 4 meeting, saying he hopes to keep it reasonable and fair. The sponsors of the meeting are "understandably confused" by what they know of the gateway concept so far.

Hart, meanwhile, said she has heard the concerns from the community and is in the process of removing phrases like "adventure day lodge" from official documents, including eventually from the capital improvement plan.

On Friday, her office posted its first official mention of the gateway concept <a href="http://parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov/About_Us/Project_Details/West_County_Gateway.aspx">here</a>.

She promised to call her own meetings over the summer to give residents a chance to say what they do — and do not — want.

"If they don't support it, it's not going to happen," she said.

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