College of Marin’s ‘Field Lab of Dreams’ in Bolinas Moves Ahead

After many months of debate, public outreach and study, College of Marin’s board of trustees took the first step this week toward potentially restoring the shuttered Bolinas Marine Lab to a usable and much-coveted science teaching and field research space at 72 Wharf Road along the Bolinas Lagoon in West Marin.

Trustees, meeting Tuesday at COM’s Indian Valley Campus in Novato, voted 6-0 — with one board member absent — to spend $70,000 to hire Perkins Eastman Dougherty Architects D.P.C. to develop a proposal for a possible rehabilitation project at the site, which was shut down in 2006 amid concerns about structural deterioration, mold, earthquakes and other problems.

The proposal, to be completed by mid-January in coordination with COM architectural design staff and an advisory committee of college trustees and faculty members, will then be submitted to the Marin County planning department staff for review. The Perkins Eastman firm has extensive experience working with educational institutions and in dealing with government entities, including the California Coastal Commission, said COM president David Wain Coon.

“I firmly believe this is our best path forward at this time,” Coon said. “The board is in concurrence on that.”

Coon said the $70,000 will come from Measure B bond funds approved by voters. There had been some debate earlier about whether bond funds could be used for the project, but that question was resolved earlier this year, Coon said.

“A light came on for me in the spring,” he said. “I realized that the best path forward was to move past the concept stage and to put together an actual proposal. Until we put together a project, we won’t know if it will fly.”

COM professor Joe Mueller, a lead instructor in the school’s marine biology program, said he was pleased to see the project finally move ahead.

“First and foremost, the faculty is thrilled that we have moved beyond the discussion phase to an action phase,” Mueller said in an email. “All along, the faculty has just wanted to see the field station reopened for the benefit of the students.”

The fate of the field lab has been bandied about for years, even as the facility itself languished from neglect. Mueller, at a packed public meeting in Bolinas  in October 2017, spoke out passionately in favor of preserving the site as a college resource, rejecting rumors that the college should unload the problem-plagued station and donate it to the town of Bolinas or a local nonprofit for a community center.

Mueller’s comments touched a nerve and led to faculty uprising of sorts. In December 2017, faculty members joined in a coalition with members of the public and published a 96-page position paper, “The Field Lab of Dreams…Build it and They Will Continue to Come.” The position paper has since been amended several times to include reports from college science alumni and other opinions supporting the restoration.

“We believe that between Measure B funds and the recent revelation that a quarter of a million dollars given by a private donor some years ago (and) earmarked for the Bolinas Field Station is on the college’s books, money is not an issue,” Mueller said. “We also feel that there are no legal and liability hurdles and that safety issues will be accounted for and mitigated through the permitting process with the county.”

Julie Hanft, a community volunteer working with the faculty, confirmed Mueller’s comments in her address to the trustees Tuesday.

“We believe that all of the board’s liability and safety concerns will be flushed out and addressed within the Marin County planning process,” Hanft told the COM board.  “As a result, the Division of State Architect will not be required to approve the project because the two processes are redundant. This will also allow the college to recognize a cost savings, since working with (the state) is more expensive than working with the county.”

As to other relevant laws that had been a question mark before — such as the Field Act regulating construction on an earthquake fault line — Hanft said the county planning process would be the “equivalent substitute” from state oversight.

“The Bolinas Field Station has always been exempt from Division of State Architect oversight because of the ‘off-campus exception’ and the ‘outdoor science classroom exception,’” she said.

Similarly, compliance with the Alquist-Priolo Act, another regulation, will be met under county permit process guidelines, “and because the ‘outdoor science classroom exception’ applies to it as well,” Hanft told the board.

The Bolinas Marine Lab complex, which includes a dock and other buildings, was originally built in 1910 as a U.S. Coast Guard Station. The college acquired it in the 1950s from the federal government, according to the faculty position paper.

“Only one other California community college owns a similar facility,” the position paper says. “Mendocino College uses its field station, also obtained from the federal government, for a wide range of science classes, art classes and student activities. It also partners with nonprofit scientific entities and rents the facility out to researchers and others to defray costs.”