It turns out that winter is a great time to visit Tomales Bay, an hour north of San Francisco. Which was a surprise since I tend to write the season off as cold and wet. But when I went there in January to research a travel story on Tomales Bay for VIA magazine’s November/December issue, the days were clear and warm. And that wasn’t a fluke. “When it’s not raining, this is the most beautiful time of year here,” a bed and breakfast owner told me, and other people I talked to backed her up. (The nights were another story, by the way. I was glad to have a warm jacket.)
With ranches on the eastern shore, Point Reyes National Seashore to the west, and oyster farms and Tomales Bay State Park in the middle, it’s beautiful country, especially when you think how close it is to the city. Here’s a view east from the Tule Elk Reserve on the northern point of Point Reyes:
As peaceful as it looks, this bay has been a battle ground between developers and conservationists since the early 1900s, and it still kind of is. The whole story (going back to the Coast Miwok) is laid out in this history from the National Parks Service. Things were especially hot in the middle of the century. The West Marin General Plan of 1976 slated the eastern side of the bay for a city of 125,000 people, complete with a golf course, schools, a freeway along the waterfront and man-made recreational islands in the bay. The land was worth more as building tracts than it could produce as farmland, making it tempting for owners to cash out.
As developers began to buy parcels and plan developments, conservationists strategically purchased neighboring lots in an effort to block access to the water and to likely routes for roads. Environmental groups also lobbied the government and eventually the general plan was repealed. To preserve the farmland, much of west Marin was zoned with a limit of one house per 60 acres. Between 1972 and 1975 the number of building sites in the watershed went from 1.2 million to 3,000. Great news for tourists, migrating birds and people who wanted to keep ranching, but not so great news for those land owners planning to sell.
To try to make up the difference for ranch owners, and to further conserve the land in case the zoning is ever revised, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust buys development rights from ranchers. Owners keep their land and continue working it and the trust ensures that the property will never be turned into subdivisions. Meanwhile, the region’s appetite for fancy foods—grass fed beef, organic milk, fresh oysters, small-batch cheese—seems to be opening profitable niche markets for ranchers. And it makes for good eating. Check out the story for lots of recommendations. It’s on the website (if it asks for your zip code, try a northern California one, maybe 94600) and in magazine layout in the digital edition, with beautiful pictures by David Collier.