How a sleepy north county enclave kept it rural.
There isn’t any “there” there, which makes it hard to zero in on where Bonny Doon starts and ends. Northwest of Santa Cruz, inland and northeast of Davenport, west of Felton—but without a post office, city hall, or even a general store, you can’t tell when you’ve arrived. Bonny Doon is home to about 3,000 residents (with a few squatters), plus two fire stations, a school, which also serves as a community center, and a church, where everybody votes. Many of these residents enjoy Bonny Doon exactly as it is, and reject any attempts to develop or commercialize their rural way of life.
Being opposed to change is probably one of the few things on which independent-minded Dooners actually agree. And their community involvement and dedication makes Bonny Doon a frequent topic on my radio program, Universal Grapevine.
There isn’t even agreement on the origin or spelling of the community’s name, or who named it. According to author Donald Clark in his excellently researched book “Santa Cruz County Place Names,” it’s been spelled “Bonny Doon,” “Bonney Doon,” and, with a nod to Scotland, “Bonnie Doon.”
I made Bonny Doon my home from 1986 to 1996, and, with my then-“significant other,” built a house up there near the airport. Bonny Doon has two local monthly newsletters. One is The Battle Mountain News, now publishing it’s 401st edition. Morgan Rankin started it in 1976 and recently told me it was “a way of getting Bonny Dooners together.”
The other monthly is The Highlander, which is the official organ of the Rural Bonny Doon Association (RBDA). I was editor of the Highlander for quite a few years. The RBDA’s motto/slogan/driving/uniting force is “Keep Bonny Doon Rural.” And in many ways that slogan is at the heart of Bonny Doon’s character and always has been.
Although the area has a lot of horse lovers, you won’t see the free-ranging cows, pigs, goats, chickens, or rustic outbuildings you’d expect in an area you might think of as “rural.” What you will find is that most homes within Bonny Doon’s 20 square miles are built on a legal zoning minimum of two or three acres, per county zoning requirements … and that’s enough to make it, sort of, rural.
Bonny Doon had—and still has—more than a few notables. Robert Heinlein, author of novels like “Starship Troopers,” “Stranger in A Strange Land,” and “The Green Hills of Earth,” lived there from 1967 to 1987. He was one of my customers when I worked at Eastside Hardware in 1970. He told me about his Coast Guard Days on Alameda Island and about his special “shrouded” typewriter and invited me up for a visit, but I put it off too long. You can still see his house (although not his typewriter) on the HeinleinSociety.org online photo tour.
Award-winning nature photographer of National Geographic fame, Frans Lanting, and his wife Chris Eckstrom live in the southwestern reaches of that elusive Bonny Doon territory.
One morning years ago, I ran into the airport manager’s wife at our mailbox center. She couldn’t wait to tell me that John Travolta had flown into the Bonny Doon Airport the day before and tried to buy it. She said her husband had no idea who he was, but he told Travolta the 2,400-foot runway couldn’t be lengthened to fit his plane.
Probably Bonny Doon’s biggest commercial secret is the Lockheed Martin Missile Fuel and Rocket testing facility hidden behind locked gates at the northern dead end of the nearly legendary Empire Grade Road. I asked former 3rd district supervisor Gary Patton, who represented for his Bonny Doon for 20 years, for his Lockheed memories.
“The most frequent comment, or complaint, was the speeding flotillas of Lockheed workers, running down Empire Grade at what the residents deemed were excessive speeds and unusual hours,” Patton says via email. “But then there were the rocket firings, unexplained blasts, and mysterious trucks. Those occasioned comments (and concern) as well. Protests weren’t frequent, as I am remembering it, but there were some, and many peace-loving county residents really didn’t think that a secret, closed explosives factory, located in the redwoods, was an attractive neighbor. The anti-war movement came to Empire Grade on at least a couple of occasions, but the facility was never moved, nor did Lockheed react too much.”
Like UCSC today, Lockheed had its influence on the Santa Cruz Community. Lockheed executive Vernon Smith was Mayor of Santa Cruz from 1973 to 1974.
Dooners have often done battle with anyone seeking to commercialize. One such skirmish involved a downtown Santa Cruz business owner who hoped to turn an existing business building and parking lot—once a real estate office—into a general store and post office. He’d have just one truck come up in the morning and return in the afternoon with all the orders placed during the day. It would have saved hundreds of miles of driving, and offer same-day service. No deal. Community members from the Rural Bonny Doon Association rejected it completely.
I asked Ted Benhari, editor of The Rural Bonny Doon Association’s Highlander newsletter and longtime RBDA board member, what the really hot land-use issues in Bonny Doon are these days.
Benhari says somebody wants to start an event center to rent out to weddings, which would bring cars, noise and still more commercialism, all to an area zoned as residential. There’s also the rapidly growing cannabis cultivation, which is sprouting on plots all over Bonny Doon. Reports of armed guards and thieves roaming about, plus the now-familiar resin-y odor, has many residents in fear. There’s the very real possibility of the creation of the new Santa Cruz Redwoods National Monument Park, which would expose the revered redwoods and the surrounding area to thousands more tourists who might not respect the territory. There are a few more issues too, and there always will be. Benhari says that average attendance at monthly RBDA meetings is around 65. That’s an indication of how seriously those residents take their land-use issues and care about keeping Bonny Doon rural.
Bonny Doon is, above all, a community. Well, maybe a huge sort of village. It’s a collection of folks who like living at least a half hour away from towns and cities, and even though they enjoy their hard-won privacy will band together quickly to keep their community as close as possible to their dream- like ideal. Wikipedia has one definition of community as “A group of interdependent organisms inhabiting the same region and interacting with each other”.
That’ll work, but don’t expect the Bonny Dooners to agree.
PHOTO: A member of Bonny Doon’s Rocchi family ambushes a grape thief at her home in 1928. COURTESY OF PAUL HOSTETTER