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Highway to Shell

Tomales Bay Oyster Company a victim of its success

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ROAD WOES Believe us when we tell you that lots of cars park along Highway 1 on the weekend. - RORY MCNAMARA
  • Rory McNamara
  • ROAD WOES Believe us when we tell you that lots of cars park along Highway 1 on the weekend.

Anyone who's ever driven up scenic Highway 1 through Marshall on a weekend knows this: the parking scene at the Tomales Bay Oyster Company is chaotic.

Cars are everywhere along the road, some swinging U-turns as they try to park, people toting coolers in the road—and just a few young, for-hire parking assistants on hand to try and manage an increasingly unmanageable scene.

Nobody denies that it's an accident waiting to happen, least of all Tod Friend, the majority owner of the popular bayside picnicking destination, where the oysters flow freely (but not for free) and visitors are mightily encouraged to carpool, given a traffic picture that often finds dozens of cars lined up along the highway.

"People are always trying to do U-ies, the speed limit is 55—it is a little bit snarly," says Friend. "It really hasn't played out that there's these terrible consequences, but someone can get hit, and we know that." Friend stresses that there's been a "total of three collisions" associated with the snarly parking scene.

The retail and commercial oyster-harvesting operation is going through changes it hopes will help it expand business, even as it works to make the highway safer for all who would drive it.

"They have troubles at land and at sea," says Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who also sits on the California Coastal Commission. At the land-bound county level, Kinsey says that the business' use permit "does not permit anywhere near the level of activity that they undertake on that site."

The coastal commission and lawyers for the oyster company are meanwhile in litigation over TBOC's coastal development permits and whether it should be able to reclaim portions of bayside oyster grounds it once owned. The gist of their argument, says Friend, is that TBOC predated the emergence of the California Coastal Commission and may not be "subject to a permit with the CC." G'luck with that.

The troubles at TBOC began in 2012, says Friend, when the facility hosted a theater event. "It came to pass that there was a complaint filed against us for having a little theater conducted here on a summer evening," he says.

The Marin County use permit for TBOC dates back to 1987, says Friend, and stipulates a few conditions that the operation has outgrown as its popularity has increased.

The permit allowed for the retail operation to run Friday through Sunday; the operation could hire a maximum of eight employees, and only one full-time resident was allowed on the property.

Yet by 2012, Friend says, "we were operating seven days a week, and we were not supposed to be doing that. We have more employees. So the county wanted to start from scratch, they wanted take it from the top. We said, 'Fine, we'd like to do that.'"

Friend says TBOC has tried numerous times to sort out the traffic problem. First, the company tried to take over an underused nearby parking lot owned by the state. The state said no-go.

For a while, they parked cars on a parcel owned by the federal government. The feds put the kibosh on that parking lot.

Friend then rented out the West Marin School parking lot, in Point Reyes Station, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and provided a shuttle.

"None of that worked," says Friend. Finally, the company purchased a 26-acre lot across the highway from the main oyster shack and hopes to use it for parking—but that's by no means guaranteed.

"We sought out some idea from the county that they'd give some permission, give us the thumbs-up—so we bought it, and it's the centerpiece of our proposal with the county."

Problem is, the 26 acres are zoned as an "agricultural protection parcel." Kinsey says the county recently sent Friend a letter that indicated TBOC "is not going to build large parking lots in the ag zones."

The Marin County Planning Commission will take up the parking plan Sept. 17.

"The 26 acres pretty much speaks to the parking issue," says a hopeful Friend.

Kinsey notes that he's a big fan of the West Marin oyster economy and wants to help sort out TBOC's intersection of growing pains: "We want to support oysters, oyster growing and oyster entertainment."

And why shouldn't he: oysters represent a huge draw for the county. Friend says that the recent closing of Drakes Bay Oyster Company has naturally meant a spillover crowd to his business—that's 50,000 Drakes Bay visitors a year whose options for al fresco oysters, he says, are now Tomales Bay Oyster Company or Hog Island (and, we'd add, the Marshall Store).

Friend notes that the biggest groups to visit TBOC are Asian-American weekenders, and he's worked mightily to manage the traffic they bring with them. "Half of our customers are Asian-Americans from the East Bay," says Friend. "Nobody in the world loves shellfish like the Asian and the Latino populations. The people who are the least avid about the oysters are the Caucasians, but they come out for the picnicking."

The oyster company enacted a reservation system, says Friend, "to try and control the traffic and the parking." But that didn't work, even though Friend says reservations came with "a long discussion from us about how you had to come by a bus or a van."

Instead, the reservation system only encouraged more cars to the site. "It didn't help with the number of cars," says Friend. "It went the other way. So we've gone away from reservations. Now it's first-come, first serve. But we tell the big parties: you have to come by bus."

The parking snafu, says Friend, sees up to a hundred cars parked along the road on the weekend. "That has been the subject of some complaint and concern in Marshall," says Friend.

Kinsey says he's surprised at the absence of California State Highway Patrol officers at TBOC to direct traffic or write tickets.

"It shocks me that CHP hasn't been more formidable," says Kinsey. He adds that it's not like the officers aren't writing tickets already. "I hear from single-family homeowners in Marshall who get nailed by CHP for backing into the roadway from their homes."

Friend says that the CHP does come to the facility, but only on "a couple of occasions" to write tickets.

CHP public information officer Andrew Barclay says part of the law enforcement problem is TBOC's location at the far-northwestern edge of Marin County. Unless there's a call for service or a specific complaint, Marin-based state police don't make it out there too often. That's especially so on the weekends when, says Barclay, there's only one or two CHP officers on patrol in all of West Marin—and an increasing number of collisions to contend with. Still, says Barclay, "we are aware of the parking problem up in that area. It's on our radar . . . but we don't have the resources to station one officer at the TBOC."

In any event, the CHP officers who do head to TBOC are more likely to enjoy the scene than write tickets, says Friend. "We've got CHP guys who come without their uniforms, and come for a picnic," says Friend.

No problem there, says Barclay, so long as everyone understands that those officers are off-duty. "What officers do in their spare time, that's their business."

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