M.C. NOW - Sara Rubin

A local success story is a salve in these strange times.  

Good afternoon. 

It’s easy to feel on edge these days. The air has cleared and the Big Sur Dolan Fire is holding for now, but we’re barely getting into fire season. Covid-19 infections continue growing, thankfully slower, but many sectors remain under orders to stay closed for business with no telling when they can reopen. And then there’s the election. A story making the rounds today in The Atlantic lays out in terrifying detail what’s at stake if the electoral system we rely on is not respected—it’s no less than the system of American democracy. 

It’s easy to get depressed about any or all of these things, just a partial list of what’s made 2020 feel like the longest year ever. But when faced with a list like that, I find it especially comforting to look at local wins. 

Consider the story of Whispering Oaks. In one of those oddities of naming, at the time the property was slated for development, it was named after the trees that would be chopped down in order to build. These days, it’s called the “landfill site.” And that property is included in the six parcels totaling 177 acres that will be preserved as open space (with the exception of widening Imjin Parkway on one side) in perpetuity. And it’s land that on Sept. 15, Marina City Council voted 4-0 to acquire from Monterey County; the land came with $300,000 to support ongoing habitat management obligations. 

It’s a big deal for Marina in that it gives continuity of open space all the way from the beach at Fort Ord Dunes State Park to the Fort Ord National Monument, and the Fort Ord Rec Trail and Greenway (FORTAG) will eventually include connective trails on this property. It will give a direct line of access from the Marina Equestrian Center to Fort Ord. 

But it’s also a big deal because nine years later, it’s the crowning achievement of a democratically led effort to protect this land. It’s taken a long time, but we have arrived at a moment that a decade ago was just a dream for the people who banded together as a group called Fort Ord Rec Users to save this place. 

A short history: In 2011, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the project, which called for a three-story office building and an MST bus maintenance facility. FORU came into being and joined up with Sustainable Seaside, Sustainable Marina, Citizens for a Sustainable Monterey County, Friends of the Ord Warhorse, Keep Fort Ord Wild and LandWatch—a grand grassroots convening. 

To get a referendum on the ballot, they were required to gather 10,800 signatures. They instead gathered 18,000 signatures—enough to show the Board of Supervisors that the public was serious, and the board voted to reverse their approval, saving the trouble of a referendum election. 

“In democracy, you don’t always win,” says then-supervisor Lou Calcagno of his reversal. (Those were the days, weren’t they?) 

Sometimes, democracy works like it’s supposed to. The supervisors voted, the people rallied, the supervisors listened and reserved course. Sometimes, democracy works slowly—in this case, it took nine years for this land to wend its way from proposed development to open space in Marina. (And a trail network and improvements remain a thing of the future.) 

But when the system works, it’s worth celebrating. Gail Morton was new on the scene politically in 2011 when Whispering Oaks became a flashpoint, and she became active in FORU. Now, in 2020 she was a Marina City Council member who got to vote on the culmination of her vision as an activist back then. 

“This is going to be protected forever and enhance quality of life forever,” she says. “It’s monumental. Nine years later, it’s about achieving a dream." 

-Sara Rubin, editor, sara@mcweekly.com

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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