Closing the Yacht Harbor: The Battle by the Bay
There have been numerous controversial political battles in the history of Palo Alto, but perhaps none has resulted in as much bitter feeling and long-lasting resentment as the 1980 decision to close the Palo Alto Yacht Harbor. In some ways, it was a classic culture clash. It featured two groups, the yachters and the environmentalists, each possessing vastly different worldviews, with little in common in how they saw the destiny of Palo Alto Harbor. What resulted was perhaps the most compelling political campaign in the city’s history. Not only was it exciting, always in doubt and full of rhetorical sparks, but in the end, the campaign itself really mattered. Despite the close divide in public opinion, the environmentalists’ campaign was so utterly victorious and the boaters’ campaign so profoundly defeated that, by 1985, the public had twice backed what was once almost unthinkable --- the complete demolition of the Palo Alto Yacht Harbor.
Before 1980, it seemed rather hard to imagine that the city would ever really close it down. Would the City Council really be responsible for tearing out the docks, piers and yacht buildings, kicking out the well-to-do boaters and letting a functioning harbor return to the mud and weeds of nature? But today a newcomer visiting the former yacht harbor would be hard-pressed to guess that water ever lapped up against the Palo Alto shoreline at all.
In fact, the Bay had been connected to Palo Alto for centuries. In the 1800s, the harbor area served as a major point to transfer goods and people to and from San Francisco and by 1928 the Palo Alto Yacht Harbor had been developed to accommodate local boaters.
Over the years, however, the harbor began to change. How and why it changed was actually a matter of public debate. Boaters said it was because the city allowed airport and golf course developers to divert the San Francisquito Creek and the Mayfield and Charleston sloughs, thereby eliminating the natural flushing action of the harbor. The city cited the destruction of local wetlands. Whatever the reason, by the 1950s, the harbor was perpetually filling with silt and bogging down in mud, so that every few years it had to be dredged. This process required excavating an enormous amount of mud (some 50,000 cubic yards) and dumping it on nearby marshlands. Environmentalists contended that this practice was an ecological abomination that over the years had destroyed some 500 acres of tidal marsh. And although Santa Clara County took over the role of the actual dredging of the harbor after Palo Alto’s own machinery broke in 1957, the city still had to pay for the cost of moving the mud.
Some of the members of the more environmentally friendly Council elected in 1978 were opposed to such a questionable and expensive policy for so many to support the boating of so few. And so on June 2, 1980, they surprised many observers by agreeing to dredge the harbor only one more time in 1981 and then to allow it to dry up and return to its “natural state.”
Yacht owners hit the roof. Not only were there more than 120 boats docked at the harbor and few other available berths in Northern California, but the Palo Alto Yacht Club had become a way of life for a small group of marine enthusiasts. The harbor was also the home to the highly popular Sea Scouts. The boaters quickly got organized, collected nearly 5,000 signatures and managed to put the issue on the November 1980 ballot. It would be the city’s voters who would decide the fate of the Yacht Harbor.
The pro-harbor forces had also brainstormed an alternative to dumping in marshland. As it so happened, at the time, the city was looking for a way to turn its ever-growing dump into landfill, as had been recently been mandated by the state. So the yachters proposed turning lemon into lemonade by using the dried mud dredged from the harbor to cover the garbage. It would be the cost of this proposal that became a key topic of debate during the campaign.
As both sides attempted to woo voters in the fall of 1980, statistics became a major source of contention. For instance, harbor opponents such as City Council member Emily Renzel said using topsoil from a nearby abandoned International Telephone & Telegraph plant would be a million dollars cheaper than using dredged mud from the harbor to cover the dump. Boaters vehemently disagreed, saying that their plan was actually the more economical. Furthermore, the pro-yacht forces argued that the harbor would only need to be dredged once every three years, while their opponents said that the correct figure was actually closer to three times each year.
The statistical disagreements contributed to a tense debate on October 9th, 1980 between harbor supporter Dan Peck and Mayor Alan Henderson. As reported in the Peninsula Times Tribune, Peck first accused Henderson of knowingly sabotaging a plan to dredge the harbor in order to doom the boaters. Then Peck said that the mayor was “perpetuating a lie” in promoting the three times a year statistic. Henderson, visibly irritated, shot back that “he hoped personal attacks would be avoided.” As Election Day approached, both groups repeatedly traded barbs in the local press. Meanwhile, voters were left rather bewildered. With so many numbers and plans flying about, the average voter had little idea whose statistics were correct.
But it was here that the more politically savvy anti-harbor campaign seemed to step into the void. With financial estimates in such dispute, they presented a more emotional, visceral argument that seemed to convince many Palo Altans that the harbor was not worth saving. They were able to effectively use campaign literature and print advertising to paint the boaters as elitist and exclusionary --- ultra-rich executives abusing the public coffers by making the city pay to dredge their water playground. One anti-harbor ad showed an ominous black and white photo of the “members only” sign at the Palo Alto Yacht Club. And campaign literature rhetorically asked voters if they were willing “to pay more than a $1,000 per boat subsidy per year to 108 boat owners (only 40 of whom live in Palo Alto)?” And it seemed that no matter how many times the boaters professed to being just "middle-income people," they could not convince
the public. The accusation had stuck.
On November 4, 1980 Palo Altans went to the polls and voted down a measure by a 53.5-46.5 margin that would have continued dredging and saved the harbor. At the time it seemed likely Palo Alto had seen the end of the yacht harbor debate.
And yet, five years later the yachts were still there. In the meantime, the Palo Alto Harbor Association had been able to keep the harbor operational by acquiring its own dredge and leasing the docks and piers from Santa Clara County. And as the decreed 1986 closing date for the harbor approached, the boaters managed to put the issue back on the election ballot. This time the voters were asked to allow the harbor to stay open if yachters did their own dredging. But by 1985, the environmental movement had further matured in Palo Alto and harbor opponents successfully argued that the dredging and mud-dumping required was too harmful to local marshlands. The public voted to close the harbor again --- this time by a 55-45 margin. 
Our Reader's Memories:
"I grew up sailing out of Palo Alto, just as my father did before me. Every memory I have from that time is precious. I still live in Palo Alto and now sail out of Redwood City, where my father also keeps a sail boat. It's sad that one council woman's vendetta took away such a wonderful resource. By the way we
were not rich back then at all, and welcomed anyone who wanted to join us."
I am sorry that children in these days in Palo Alto and nearby do not have the opportunity to discover themselves through sailing.
"I was too young to know about any of the politics of the harbor but I DO remember the harbor. My dad kept his boat there because it was cheap. It was a janky little harbor. At low tide many of the boats just sat in mud. There would be literally no water under the boat. If you dropped something off the side of the boat during low tide...no problem...it would just be sitting on top of the mud."
"I was there in the late 70's, had an El Toro, did you know there isn't enough flotation to right those? I found out! Luckily it's maiden voyage didn't turn to catastrophe a fellow boater pulled me out of the drink as my nervous parents observed the whole thing from the safety of the shore. Sorry to hear the harbor is gone :( "
Send Us Your Memories!
A 1941 photo of the newly-built Sea Scout Building at the Yacht Harbor. (PAHA)
The Yacht Harbor in 1986 as the yachts were preparing to leave.
A sea scout makes his case for the Yacht Harbor's survival in 1985. (PAHA)
The old Sea Scout Building looking out on what was once the Harbor in 2008.
A bird's eye view of the Harbor and surroundings in 1943. The Duck Pond is the black oval near the center of the photo. (PAHA)
Emily Renzel was a prime opponent of the Yacht Harbor in the 1980s. (PAHA)