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New York Times article on Caspar
Coastal Village Preserves Its Nature
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
CASPAR, Calif. – If California is the land of self-reinvention, Caspar could be the unofficial capital.
Perhaps only in Caspar, a ragtag conglomeration of weeds and woolly renegades nestled on the Pacific coast just north of Mendocino, would villagers gather to spend a Sunday afternoon discussing the social implications of a spa. Perhaps only in this, yes, rather ghostly looking former mill town would a group of arty, aging back-to-the-landers and urban refugees recruit a family therapist and a landscape architecture professor from Berkeley to help wrest their town from sudden death.
They call themselves the Casparados. For five years, this unincorporated village's 500 or so residents – no one knows the exact number, since Caspar is said to be a state of mind as well as a place – have waged a sophisticated, impassioned campaign to preserve their town.
Their crusade began in 1997, when the major landowner here announced that he was selling the heart of the town, about 300 acres including not just the center of the village but also the beach, the Caspar Creek and the hypnotic windswept headlands that collectively make up one of the largest stretches of undeveloped property on the California coast.
Haunted by visions of an oceanfront Ramada, the Casparados seized control of their fate. Instead of protesting, the motley group of former strangers transformed themselves into a nonprofit organization suspiciously resembling a government. Collectively, they began designing a master plan for the town.
This summer, egged on by the community, the Mendocino Land Trust and a national organization called the Trust for Public Land assembled a $3.5 million patchwork of state and federal money to buy the majestic 71-acre headlands, which had been privately owned since the mid-19th century. Now the property is public, officially part of Caspar Headlands State Beach, California's newest state park.
The Casparados include a onetime drummer for the Byrds, the original writer of "The Muppet Show," the Grammy award-winning producer and songwriter for Sheryl Crow and Shelby Lynne, and a Bronx-born coffee maker who once ran a Hunter S. Thompson campaign for sheriff.
Caspar is considered unusual by professional planning experts, not only for the active stance of its citizens but also for the community-designed town plan – still being hammered out – which calls for ecology-sensitive growth, including the addition of 35 or 40 houses.
"We've skirted the hairy edge of Nimbyism," said Michael Potts, 57, the author of several books on living off the grid. Mr. Potts, who came here as a conscientious objector in the 70's, said, "There was no term for 'yes in my backyard.'"
What Caspar is saying "no" to lies five miles down the road, in Mendocino, itself a former lumber town with charming architecture now inhabited by T-shirt shops and $300-a-night bed-and-breakfasts. "Mendocino," said Madelin Holtkamp, executive director of the Economic Development and Financing Corporation of Mendocino County, a nonprofit organization, "is a place increasingly where nobody really lives."
Caspar itself looks improbable – a combination of empty prairie and a tenuous assortment of buildings coexisting in fog. Among them: hand-built hippie houses; a raucous 100-year-old roadhouse; perhaps the only Norman Rockwell-looking synagogue in North America; and, in an oceanfront neighborhood waggishly called "splendid Caspar," an architectural statement recently featured in Architectural Digest.
"We have big money, new money, old money, people-wishing-they-had money and people-glad-they-don't-have money," said Judy Tarbell, 64, one of the most active Casparados.
This famously scenic coastline from Mendocino north to Fort Bragg – Caspar being the fleeting speck between them on Highway 1 – has undergone profound changes in recent years, with tourists displacing timber as the economic mainstay. Georgia-Pacific recently announced that in the fall it will close its mill in Fort Bragg, a traditionally working-class town. While Mendocino's picturesque inns stay afloat with minimum-wage seasonal labor, the average price of housing has soared above $475,000 in Mendocino village, buoyed by weekenders and vacationers breakfasting amid fresh flowers.
The Casparados say they want to avoid a "Mendo-reactive culture."
"We represent all of coastal California that shouldn't be adversely developed," Mr. Potts said.
Caspar was presented with an unusual set of circumstances – a huge, undeveloped parcel of coastal land put up for sale by a single owner – the Caspar Cattle Company, a k a Oscar Smith, 61, who had spent most of his childhood in the town.
In 1990, Mr. Smith bought the 300 acres, once home to 5,000 millworkers, from the lumber company, where his uncle Jim Lilley had been supervisor for nearly 60 years. "I didn't want to see them bulldoze it into nothing," Mr. Smith said.
He, too, had dreams of forging a community here, he said, but he grew tired of environmental and coastal regulators. When the community caught wind of his intention to sell, they began holding boisterous, sometimes contentious monthly town meetings (hence the therapist).
They worked out their vision, with assistance from Randy Hester, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who helps communities design public spaces.
Dr. Hester urged the Casparados to identify their most "sacred spaces" – first and foremost the headlands and the creek, with its spawning Coho salmon and lush tangles of wild roses and sweet peas.
"Many California towns, because of growth pressures and second-home development, are facing the question of what they are going to become," he said. "What's amazing about Caspar is the fact that they didn't have a government, yet they've operated with the kind of direct democracy seen in colonial New England."
Meridian Green, a folk singer who has dedicated two CD's to her hometown, including "Live From Caspar," recorded with her husband, Gene Parsons, a former drummer in the Byrds, put it this way: "The community norm is self-expression. So when consensus occurs, that's really powerful."
Now comes the emotionally charged task of composing a town center that, as the plan advocates, is "unostentatious, beautiful, nurturing." One hundred and forty acres of Caspar is "still up for grabs," Mr. Potts said.
Last month, a wealthy resident stepped in to help the Casparados secure the former grammar school, built in 1912, as a community center, where even the symbols on the flagpole – the American flag, the state flag and the Earth Flag, in that order – were the subject of deep philosophical debate.
Though still an unofficial body, the nonprofit Caspar Community now wields considerable local clout. The members have been talking with Habitat for Humanity about building lower-income housing, and they envision a strollable town center with solar-powered houses, shops, cottage industries, electric car hook-ups and perhaps the most important missing amenity, a bakery.
To Mr. Smith, the visions of the Casparados go only so far. "It's easy to hug each other and drink wine and be dreamy," he said. "But at some point someone is going to have to start digging dirt."
The hard part may be just beginning. As Potts put it at a community potluck social the other night, "We're in the throes of insurmountable opportunity."
written by Patricia Leigh Brown for, and copyrighted by, the New York Times, 4 August 2002
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