Sausalito’s Airport Bid -- 1979

By Margaret Badger

The following is excerpted and lightly edited from an essay Margaret wrote for the Historical Society Newsletter, Moments in Time, in 2012

From Fritz Crackers by Phil Frank Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

From Fritz Crackers by Phil Frank
Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

Cartoonist Phil Frank harvested the content for his Marin-Scope cartoons from the colorful social and political goings-on of Sausalito and Marin County in the late '70s and early '80s. Certain issues lent themselves especially well to the satirist’s wit, particularly those that polarized public opin­ion. In 1979, one such issue was the Sausalito City Council's bid to buy Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato from the General Services Administration for $1.

That action, satirized in the accompanying Fritz Crackers cartoon reproduced above, was one of several attempts to get Marin County behind the idea of having a civilian airport included in the Hamilton Field after the Air Force left for good in 1976. When the land was put up for public sale by the GSA, Marinites passionately sided for or against perpetuating aviation activity at the site. After two-and-a-half years of research and, the Supervisors scheduled a vote on the aviation proposal for May 15, 1979.

At the time, a majority of the Sausalito City Council enthusi­astically supported the pro-airport position. They realized that this valuable infrastructure resource could probably never be reproduced, and that the county should keep all options open by retaining the property. Mayor Buddy DeBruyn, Peter Van Meter, Sally Stanford and Fritz Warren voted 4-1, Robin Sweeny dissenting, to support county purchase of the airfield for civilian aviation.

Of all the cities in Marin only Novato and Sausalito took a stand on the county's controversial take-over plan. In so doing, Sausalito hoped to influence anti-aviation members of the Board of Supervi­sors not to kill the airport option, but, "to go to the market place and see what kind of deal can be obtained from major developers."

But despite the Sausalito City Council vote of support, the Su­pervisors voted not to proceed with acquisition of the base for civilian aviation. Financial risks were cited as the main rea­sons for backing away from their own proposal. This left the ma­jority on the Sausalito City Council (and other supporters around the county) with the task of trying to keep the airport option alive. Mayor Buddy DeBruyn immediately proposed and got passed a mo­tion to ask city staff to explore the possibility of Sausalito applying to the GSA to purchase Hamilton Field at the $ 1 price. If the county wasn't going to do it, Sausalito would!

While DeBruyn’s motion appeared absurd to some, to others it was considered an effective delaying tactic to prevent the Board of Supervisors from proceeding with a negotiated sale that would forever prohibit an airport. Airport backers figured that given more time to organize support from Marin's cities and/or the overall county electorate, the county's original bid to buy the airport could be resurrected and civilian air access at Hamilton Field could be­come a reality.

It proved to be an uphill battle. And on further investigation, Van Meter, an income property specialist, learned that the city could not by law own (e.g. annex) non-contiguous land, so the original proposal for Sausalito to buy Hamilton became moot anyway.

As the debate moved into the summer months, four ballot measures were put before county voters to determine what de­velopment should occur at Hamilton. One environmentalist vision, Measure B, stood out dramatically from the other plans by suggest­ing a Solar Village should be built at the air force base. Designed by former California State Architect Sim Van der Ryn, the Solar City would be capable of generating its own energy food, housing, services and jobs. These ideas sound familiar today: solar-heated housing, restored wetlands (flood the landing strips), independence from fossil fuels, and privately supported en­vironmental research centers housed in former hangars.

In October, 1979 a debate was held among eight representatives both pro and con the four proposed ballot measures. Hosted by the Sausalito Citizens Council, presenters included Supervisor Barbara Boxer, Sausalito City Councilman Peter Van Meter, John Nelson, Execu­tive Officer of the Marin Solar Village Corp, and other main players in the debate.

As it turned out, Sausalitans made their wishes emphatically clear in the fall election. A headline in the MarinScope after the election read: "Sausalitans don't like airports, but might go for a solar village." A ballot measure favoring a solar village won and measures favoring the airport lost.

Hamilton Field was eventually incorporated into the City of Novato. But what about an industrial-commercial complex? A Solar Village? An airstrip?

Several structures have been removed and replaced with a housing subdivision known as Hamilton Landing. Some of the hangars have been converted into offices, retaining their façades while being renovated on the inside. But the vast acreage of the former airfield has become one of the biggest wetland restoration projects in the country. Standing on top of the levee, lots of birds can be seen landing and taking off, but not a single small plane sets its wheels to the buried tarmac