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CASPAR CALLING: Town Meetings
photo by Sunshine Taylor, overlay by Michael Potts
Caspar nestles below the highway, a picturesque church in a cluster of unremarkable buildings. CalTrans never has learned to spell Caspar – maybe they're from Wyoming? – and most Caspar residents sympathize with the folks in Bolinas who keep stealing the road sign pointing to their town. We treasure our invisibility and wish the pressure to change and grow could be dispelled so easily!
Until two years ago, Caspar's recent history has been pastoral, punctuated by a few contentious meetings about off-shore oil, the local coastal plan, herbicide spraying, until most of us were convinced that Casparados – the devoted villagers of Caspar – were always spoiling for a fight – amongst themselves, or with outsiders, or (preferably) both. "You folks couldn't even agree the sky is blue on a clear day!" I remember one frustrated planner saying after a particularly heated meeting. Meeting avoidance became an art form.
Caspar considers itself a stubborn, funky outpost squeezed between Fort Bragg's strip-sprawl and Mendocino's splendid gentrification, and most Casparados want to keep it that way ...if we could ever agree on what "that way" means. Caspar's future is dominated by one big question: what will become of the Caspar Company's land, including 80% of the land within a quarter mile of the village center? Under present zoning, a row of two-story Mendocino Main Street shops could be built across from the Caspar Inn, and several millionaire's mansions could carve up the headlands. Add a motel beside the Caspar Creek bridge, and ranchettes instead of cattle grazing in the fields, and Caspar becomes another bedroom community under a thin veneer of tourism.
In August, 1997, this outcome loomed larger, until an amazing thing happened: Casparados started agreeing with each other! At first, in small gatherings and community meetings, we agreed easily about what we didn't want, but our vision of what we DID want was uncertain. The novelty of consensus drew more and more of us into the discussion. For the first time in half a century, meetings in Caspar took on a positive tone, even as we looked around the circle and noticed our diversity. Recognizing that majority rule produces oppressed minorities, we avoided voting, but patiently moved toward sharing a vision of a livable future. Many of us started enjoying the meetings, and bringing our friends. Outsiders were stunned to notice Casparados working together amicably.
Eighteen monthly meetings later, the process has produced surprising results. In a town once dominated by the automobile, more and more people are walking. A Traffic Brigade of residents concerned about cars racing along the straightaways has met to talk about traffic calming and redesign. Another group has written land use rules intended to carry Caspar over the brink of the 21st Century toward an enjoyable next century. Every month, on the second Sunday at 3pm , an ever-changing group of villagers gathers at the Shul to carry the consensus a step farther.
Will the town be able to become its Company and continue the century-old pattern of unified stewardship for another hundred years? The asking price is steep, and our many visions have not yet coalesced into unanimous acceptance, but Caspar has become a community where neighbors talk to each other about their common goals and values. We share rides, take care of and cooperate with each other in ways unthinkable two years ago. Already we are tasting the fruits of community, and they are sweet indeed.
written by Michael Potts for Mendoscene
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