"Bunch of assholes."
Jeff Bridges as The Dude on Metallica in The Big Lebowski.
Singer's metal fence has heavy impact in Marin
Matthai Kuruvila, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Marin County -- James Hetfield co-founded the influential heavy metal band Metallica and, as its chief songwriter, helped pen and perform strident songs such as "Don't Tread on Me." It might as well be his anthem for property rights in Marin County.
The Marin County resident has erected a barbed-wire fence on his property near San Rafael, cutting off a fire trail that locals say has been used for at least a half-century to access treasured hiking trails along scenic ridgelines.
Hetfield's representatives have told county officials that the metal and barbed-wire fence is a response to vandalism on the property. Nonetheless, the decision has infuriated the bikers, hikers and equestrians who use the trail. Some locals say it also threatens a century-old county tradition of property owners giving public access to open space.
"This is really a slap in the face to the community," said Connie Berto, 75, who has been using the trail since the 1960s. "It's atrocious. The fence is outrageous."
The case exemplifies a trend in Marin County: New residents are buying properties that were private ranchlands but open to hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts, said Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, a 32-year resident of the county who said he has used the trail many times.
"As real estate values have gone up and different folks have moved into the county, there's a different sense of property rights," Kinsey said. "There's a learning curve that has to take place with new owners about the historic use of the lands, while also respecting that these are private properties."
"In every single town, from Sausalito to Novato, these historical uses exist. Many people consider them to be public. But all it takes is a change of owner to make an abrupt change, depending on the attitude of the property owner."
Messages left with Hetfield's manager, his band's record label (Warner Bros. Records) and his contractor (Redhorse Constructors Inc.) were not successful in getting a comment.
Supervisor Kinsey said the county has negotiated several agreements with property owners to allow access for the public. Kinsey cited Hetfield's neighbor George Lucas as one such example.
Hetfield bought his land in unincorporated Marin County in 1999, according to property records. He planned to make a 14,000-square-foot home as well as a 6,000-square-foot studio, which also functioned as a caretaker's home, according to a 2002 Associated Press story. Kinsey said only the studio has been built.
In 2002, Hetfield made a trade with the county that was beneficial to both sides. He traded away the right to develop 44 homes on his property, which it had been zoned for, and gave an easement for 438 1/2 acres to be maintained as public space by the county. In exchange, Hetfield received the right to build his home higher on the hillside and also larger - at a time when it was difficult to get approval for a 4,000-square-foot home, Kinsey said.
At some point, Hetfield also obtained the Luiz Ranch, which contains the fire road that is under dispute.
The Luiz family had long had an open - but ad hoc - relationship with the public. They even installed gates that latched closed behind hikers, preventing livestock from escaping. Kinsey said it was part of county tradition that dates at least to the 19th century allowing public access to wildlands.
Though the Luiz Ranch Fire Road had been used by the public for decades, Kinsey said it was made an official part of the county trail system in 1983. Still, the relationship between the property owners and the public was mostly informal.
As former ranchlands have changed hands, the county has taken steps to ensure continued public access, said Kinsey, president of the Marin County Open Space District.
Sometimes the county buys the land needing access. In other instances, the county has worked out easements where the county builds fences, puts up signs and does a certain amount of monitoring. In one case of a particularly worried property owner, Kinsey said the county pays a landowner an amount - less than $10,000 a year - for the public to walk through. In that case, the property owner has been satisfied to the extent that Kinsey hopes to secure a permanent easement.
In the case of Hetfield's property, Kinsey said members of the public can sue if they can prove that there was continuous and broad public access to the road before 1972.
"If that was necessary, there was a very well-documented history of use on this trail," he said, noting that a lawsuit is an adversarial approach that ought to be only a last resort. "We aren't even approaching that at this time.
"It makes sense to reach out to Mr. Hetfield and encourage him to meet with us and see if we can find a solution that will work for him and the community."
E-mail Matthai Kuruvila at firstname.lastname@example.org.