From AlenaD@telis.org Sat Feb 21 15:29:02 1998 Date: Sat, 21 Feb 1998 14:42:11 -0800 From: Alena Davis
Subject: The Future of Faire As We Know It Status: R
NOVATO -- Every Autumn for the past 27 years, lords in puffy shirts and ladies in tightly laced bustiers have held court in the oak woodlands of Marin County's Black Point, drawing more than 175,000 paying customers to the annual Northern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire.
But the faux Shakespearean actors and their accompanying dancers, jugglers and jousters may soon be replaced by another type of character: guys in plaid pants with golf spikes.
In an election battle between environmentalists and a Kentfield developmer that could finish off the financially struggling Faire as a Bay Area cultural institution, voters in Novato will decide Tuesday whether plans for 53 homes and an 18-hole public golf course are to be or not to be.
Regardless of the outcome, the Faire may be at the end of ye olde rope. In recent years, Faire organizers, who operate on a year-to-year lease at the site along Highway 37, have negotiated with officials in San Jose to relocate to Kelley Park. They also have expressed interest in a scenic 100-acre location in Sunol, both without success. Time is running out, and no site is secured for the 1998 festival.
"We're just lutes and flutes. We're not a rough crowd," said Howard Hamburg, vice president for Renaissance Entertainment Corp., a Boulder, Colo., company that runs the Faire and four like it nationwide.
If voters approve the development in Tuesday's special election, the Faire's final curtain has fallen at Black Point. On the other hand, if they vote no, the Faire may have at least one more year there.
An Affable 41-year-old who has fought environmental groups for seven years over the project, Mulroy says he is no black knight driving a stake through the heart of a colorful Elizabethan festival.
In 1991, he and his partners paid $7.6 million for the Black Point land. They bought it from the Living History Center, an organization which had operated the Faire since 1971 but had fallen on hard times. Mulroy provided free rent the first two years, and has cut them a cheap deal every year since, he says.
"They were going bankrupt," said Mulroy. "The only reason why there is a Renaissance Faire there today is because they sold us the land. Faire officials agree. "The fate of the Faire was determined when we sold the property and agreed to leave," said Hamburg. "We've ended up staying longer than we had thought."
For some Marin County locals, the Faire's departing would be anything but sweet sorrow. Homeowners have complained about traffic and noise, not to mention the relentless annoyance of listening to out-of-town visitors spend eight weekends a year using words like "forsooth."
So far, the election capaign has centered mostly on environmental issues, not the merits of men in tights. After the Novato City Council approved the project 5-0 last September, ending years of hearings, lawsuits and squabbles, environmentalists collected signatures to put the issue on the ballot. The developers added their own initiative.
The Sierra Club, Marin County Audubon Society and other critics note that the project will require 4,300 trees, mostly oak, to be cut. They also complain that crews will dump 22,000 truckloads of dirt for the golf course in a low-lying area that is prone to floods and occaisionally becomes a habitat for ducks and shorebirds. "We think the environmental costs are too great," said Jerry Edelbrock, executive director of the Marin Conservation League, in San Rafael.
The developers plan to plant 13,000 replacement seedlings. Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year, however, predicted the new trees "would be a major failure" because they would never grow more than a few inches due to salty soil. "It is the golf course that is environmentally devastating," said Barbara Salzman, conservation chair of the Marin Audubon Society. "There's runoff from pesticides and fertilizers."
Even in Marin County, ground zero for environmental consciousness in Northern California, the project is winning converts. It has been endorsed by three local newspapers, 10 former mayors and a group op 250 adjacent neighbors. After being blasted for an earlier, larger project, the developers took an unusual step. They gave away 64 acres of hilly oak woodlands for a wildlife preserve to the American Land Conservancy, an environmental group, winning eco-accolades.
"It's a balanced project. It will be more of an asset to the community than the Renaissance Faire," said Pat Eklund, a Novato city councilwoman.
While the golf course and homes will provide 40 jobs and $164,000 anually to Novato, the Faire raises only $10,000 in yearly sales taxes, Eklund added.
All across Novato, yard signs are visible. Both sided are running advertisements on cable TV. Internal polls show the race close, and hinging on turnout. The developers' $388,000 in campaign expenses dwarfs the opponent's war chest by a 7-1 ratio.
And that leaves Faire officials sitting back and waiting.
In 1995, knowing their time was limited, they examined dozens of sites, including the 160-acre Kelley Park in San Jose. But after concerns about parking and a city plan that called for picnic sites and historic exhibits on the park lands they wanted, they withdrew, said San Jose city parks manager Jim Murphy.
Then they turned to a wooded canyon between Pleasanton and Sunol. But residents fearing traffic, fires and lower property values organized a coalition, Stop the Renaissance Faire, with brochures, a political consultant, lawyers and a newsletter.
"If anyone knows of a permanent home for us in the Bay Area, with 100 acres or so near the freeway, we're certainly ready to look at it," said Hamburg.