Getting Off the Freeway in Willits
The Willits Freeway Debate

Reprinted from Ridge Review, vol. IX, No. 3, May 1991

As a child in 1955 I lived near the fabled Indian Urbita Springs in San Bernardino Valley. The tribes had vanished but a hermit abided there among the tall palms, the avocado, peach and nut trees, with undergrowth as lush as a jungle. He was a man from the last century, in my mind's eye even now so old he resembled Rembrandt's final self-portrait. When we approached, still in the distance he hailed us smiling, called off his dogs, and offered us a glass of cold pure water.

Not long after, having moved to town, I tried out my bicycle on the still darkened and barricaded new freeway. When I reached familiar ground I saw the springs and the land itself had disappeared for the sake of four sunken lanes. In the distance a pump came on to divert the deep source. Coming thunders of traffic would shroud the sound.

It has taken many intervening years for me to feel grief, which sometimes can become understanding. Then, I felt emptiness. My eventual understanding led me out of cities and suburbs, into spacious valleys and mountain lands. California demography shows a similar trend throughout the state. Because we instinctively conserve what we love, some of us have moved to and stayed where the land still has a soul.

Imagine my emotions when news came to Willits of developers, big-ticket political contributors, busy as ants or stolid termites, intent on a new freeway. The "Willits Bypass" came off the bottom of the Caltrans planning list. Co-incidentally Marge Handley, the daughter of the Willits developer Bob Harrah and herself the owner of a road construction firm, was appointed to the California Transportation Commission. Another member of that body, which yays or nays Caltrans' vision of land use and road development in the state, was Stanley Hulett, born and raised in Willits and friend to both developer father and contractor daughter. Among the other members of the CTC were five urban developers, a building consultant, a heavy machinery owner/marketer, and a tire mogel.

Last year this commission got the "Willits Bypass" a million dollars for a preliminary study. In swift ranks, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, the City of Willits and the Northern California Association of Governments endorsed the project.

The "Willits Bypass" possibility presents us with a microcosm of how enormous political momentum, with its built-in capacity to bias and influence, uses the California freeway system to prime large-scale development. But embedded in the Willits community is a sub-population composed significantly of citizens who had deserted the results of the post-War development vision. Some came to Willits for retirement, in a gamble that they would live years longer with clean air and good water, among calmer neighbors. Others, mainly new parents, were drawn by an inner responsibility, the realization that high-density, high-stress, high-speed environments bury the sanctity of life, leaving a lesser experience they cannot honor.

Meetings about the freeway began in Willits in December 1989. The Caltrans colossus appeared as a few dozen defensive civil servants, intent on following instructions. The Scoping Meeting had the purpose to record the concerns of the citizens which would then figure into the project study. Two hundred and fifty citizens showed up, none expressing support for the gigantic, standard freeway. Several suggested a lower-speed, smaller-scale structure that might minimize the destructive impact of a new road through the town outskirts, or recommended re-routing some of the downtown traffic through sparsely used side streets.

One citizen suggested planting 10,000 trees along the road to absorb the poisons of pollution. Others distrusted that Caltrans would reduce the traffic through the town at all but would, as elsewhere, attract traffic, increase congestion, trigger speculation, force quick property sales, foster roadside franchises to the detriment of community-oriented businesses, bring higher demands upon fire, accident and re-paving services--in short, import the urban tenor and landscape upon a culture unable to absorb it and still survive.

These questions and anxieties were subsequently nullified in the Caltrans minutes and bulletins. Willits Citizens for a Safe Environment found that all meetings from the Scoping Meeting forward either did not mention public concerns at all or placed them in the following formula: "public comment followed on subjects already documented." The goal: to manufacture the appearance of consent, using formalist democratic trappings.

Six routes developed from the primary study. Two skirted Willits, along the eastern and western hills. Four swung east of the city limits, either to shoot straight down the valley or to veer west into the foothills adjacent to the Little Lake Valley wetlands. One of the latter routes was the boulevard idea that several citizens and groups advocated. Whether in wholesome aggression or self-defense, neighbors joined into such acronymed organizations as WHOA (Westside Home Owners Association) and SAVE (Save All the Valley Eternally).

Many of the same citizens had persuaded the Willits City Council to refuse a proposed state-of-the-art biomass facility, which also threatened the life of the town in 1989, through a plan to incinerate Willits oak groves and sell, to PG & E, electricity generated from its wood-heated steam-turbines. That proposal originated from a billionaire multi-national corporation based in San Diego, acting through Harwood Redwood Products, a local mill then approaching bankruptcy.

The failed exploitation proved there remains in the Willits consciousness sincere protective feelings about the land. It is out of an antique American Dream, unlike that marketed by post-World War II industry. Instead of mythic Freedom, movement, swift transience as values, youthful escape via the open road-- these masking very real corporate dominance and its poisonous consequences--there is the ideal of land-based stability, what used to be called peace. Even in the modern era, this small agricultural valley maintains hay farming, stock ranching, gardens. Scattered farmlands don't frighten the deer.

There also exists in our boom-and-bust company-town a shy subordinate quality threading through its history. People can be swayed by their bosses and the influence of the powerful. Modern corporate builders also know they can distort the natural agricultural balance by first undermining its conservators. Rampant land-price inflation accomplishes that. Thus the episodic conflict of corrupted against pure in American history is joined for another irrevocable morality play.

I think of my hermit friend and the power of his ghost.


The freeway is being built as of this writing, 2014, amid legal and political protest.

Addendum: Letter to the Willits Weekly, April 14, 2017

Next Essay

All Rights Reserved · Copyright © 2005, WJ Ray
Website by