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Sense of Community Blossoms in “Hamiltown”

  • Marin Independent Journal
  • September 21, 1999
  • Donna Domino

Homes aren't the only thing new at Hamilton. Many of the residents settling in at the former military base in Novato are also newcomers to Marin County.

A little more than 42 percent of the 357 residents who have so far moved into the 410 homes sold at Hamilton in the past year come from outside Marin, according to the most recent statistics from companies involved in developing the area.

Almost 58 percent come from inside Marin, with Novato supplying the biggest percentage. Of the 206 Marin residents accounted for by developers, 84 are from Novato, or 40 percent. San Rafael and Mill Valley transplants fill the next two spots, with 39 and 34 residents, respectively.

It is perhaps that so many residents are from outside the immediate area - or the fact that they are all part of something new - that such a visibly strong sense of community has blossomed at Hamilton in recent months.

"We've got lots of friends already here at Hamilton," said John Zorn, who with his family moved to Hamilton from Half Moon Bay two months ago.

"My wife's across the street right now," Zorn said. "It's like going to college, everybody moves into the dorm at the same time," he added, explaining the area's camaraderie.

Echoing its "Hamiltown" web site name, residents say the neighborhood's Norman Rockwell friendliness and strong sense of community are what they enjoy most. And residents are not wasting any time making Hamilton their own. Hamilton residents will celebrate their new community during a festival Sunday. Already, 100 volunteers have signed up to put on the event.

Like many newcomers, Zorn has joined one of several community groups to renovate the former facilities that fell into ruin after the military left. One of the projects he has listed on his agenda is working to renovate the base's old theater.

"One of my little dreams is to walk over to the theater on a Sunday afternoon with my little boy and wife and have a little popcorn and watch an old movie," Zorn said.

The community now taking shape comes after 23 frustrating years of often-heated negotiations over how Novato and the military reached a deal for Hamilton last July, making it the first decommissioned base in the country to be transferred back to a community.

The city's $93 million reuse plan for the former base has something for everyone: more than 2,100 new residential units, a permanent 80-bed homeless facility, 70 acres for parkland, 20 acres of commercial and retail space and 50 acres for community facilities. It took a decade's worth of work for representatives from 29 city and county agencies to agree on what should be done with the property.

Hamilton's affordable homes, good weather and nearby schools were factors that won Zorn and many others over. "We were getting very frustrated; we looked in East Bay but couldn't find anything we could afford that we liked," he said. "And now we're in the sun instead of the fog."

Of the new arrivals, 40 percent have come from outside Marin, 25 percent are from outside the Bay Area and the remaining 25 percent were local residents, according to the California Land Title Co., which is serving as the escrow company at Hamilton.

One of the first families to move in, Harv and Linda Abernathey, immediately saw Hamilton's possibilities. "Our home wasn't even built," Harv recalls. "There were no models up; there was just a lot of dirt."

"It had strong potential as a community," Abernathey explained. "It's very unique and we thought it would be fun to be part of the building of a community."

Linda Abernathey's roster of neighbors' phone numbers is used for party invitations as well as a security network, "if we need to find out where our daughter is or if a dog is found," she explained.

Retirees like 67-year-old Erich Pfeiffer and his wife Jutta, 64, say they are comfortable at Hamilton and fit in fine.

After looking in vain for an appealing senior community the Pfeiffers moved from Mill Valley in January. "We looked at retirement communities but they were really depressing," Erich Pfeiffer said. "We thought, "forget that, we'll move into an area with some kids.'"

And they are included in neighborhood socializing. "Whenever there's a party we're most likely to be there," Pfeiffer noted. "It's fantastic!" He, too, wanted to escape the fog. "We lived on the coast in Moss Beach for 25 years," Pfeiffer explained. "We like the weather."

Even though they are separated from the rest of Novato by Highway 101, Hamilton residents say they still feel part of the town.

"No, we don't feel like we're isolated at all," Zorn said. "My bank is on Grant Avenue and I get my hair cut on Grant Avenue. I go there all the time."

The newcomers to Hamilton have also received a generally warm welcome from the 282 families living in the Coast Guard-run section of Spanish-style housing. Margaret Parker said she is pleased that the development is revitalizing areas of the former base which had fallen into disrepair since the departure of the military.

"I'm really enjoying the changes because so much of the base was run down and closed down," said Parker, who is the wife of Coast Guard Rear Admiral John L. Parker. "A lot of the buildings were boarded up, with 6-foot-high weeds. "People are really excited this part of Novato is getting new life pumped into it again," Parker added. "I'm thrilled with everything that's going on, and I think it's a wonderful opportunity for businesses in the commercial area."

Hamilton residents won't be the last newcomers to the area. Construction on 2,148 new residential units, including 850 affordable units, that are part of a plan to reuse former military housing at the base and across the freeway at Rafael Village on Ignacio Boulevard is expected to begin in about two years.

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