Interview: Bob Berman, Benicia Icon & Environmental Planner
An autograph that reads “Best wishes Bobby–Jackie Robinson," a photo of himself with Hubert Humphrey, and pictures of his grandchildren are in plain view in Bob Berman’s downtown office. Stacked against a wall so they aren’t readily visible are numerous plaques for decades of work on planning issues and open space causes in Benicia, Solano County and beyond. Even more hang on his office walls.
The awards acknowledge his ongoing work to improve the world around him. Bob, 70, focuses on environmental impact reports, general plans and conservation contracts—the types of documents that make other people’s eyes glaze over. Bob understands how words on paper translate to healthier living conditions, better land use, and open space with hiking trails for all.
His vision helped change the course of development in Benicia and Solano County, limiting development to land within urban growth lines. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of him in 2005: “Berman was instrumental in persuading the cities of Benicia, Fairfield and Vallejo and Solano County in 1992 to adopt a policy of trying to preserve 10,000 acres of land in the hills to prevent the possible merging of the three cities' boundaries.”
At work, Bob writes environmental impact reports. In his free time, he is vice president of the Benicia State Parks Association, serves on the board of Bay Area Ridge Trail, and volunteers with Solano Land Trust, an organization he helped found in 1986. He served on the land trust board until 2013. “That’s when they instituted term limits,” he says in his distinctive Long Island-twinged voice. “It turns out my term limit was 27 years.”
“He’s shaped Solano County for decades,” says Natalie DuMont, volunteer and outreach coordinator with Solano Land Trust. “Bob has always been very passionate about both protecting land and getting people on the land.”
Bob, a Benicia planning commissioner from 1986-1994, sees a direct connection between the work residents did decades ago and the quality of life in Benicia today.
“Everyone talks about what a great community Benicia is. The efforts people made in the 70s, 80s and 90s really made it what it is,” Bob says, citing opposition to the proposed development of more than 5,000 homes in Sky Valley, efforts to add parks in Southampton, pressure to close a toxic waste dump off Lake Herman Road and other projects that prompted residents to come together to shape the town. “All those things together helped create Benicia’s identity as a nice place to live.”
Bob grew up on Long Island and earned a degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Michigan. He opened his own environmental firm, Nichols Berman, in 1980. He and his wife, Carol, moved to Benicia with their two daughters in the mid-1970s. Their downtown home is an elaborate Christmas wonderland, and work was already starting on that transformation when he talked with Benicia Magazine in late October.
What is an urban growth line and when did you start working on developing those in Solano County? The whole concept is to have growth within cities instead of on agricultural land. Years ago, there was a new town called Manzanita that was proposed for land near Vacaville. That’s when I got involved with the Orderly Growth Committee, and that’s when we did urban limit lines. …
In Benicia, the city adopted an urban growth boundary as a result of the Sky Valley proposal. The city put one proposal on the ballot and citizens put on another. The citizens’ proposal won. In loose terms, Lake Herman Road is the urban growth boundary for Benicia.
Why is it important to have the open space that those boundaries help protect? It’s important to protect agriculture, to have the separation of communities, and to have open space. We need recreational open space that’s close to where we live. You shouldn’t have to drive far to reach open space.
Most of your career and volunteer work center on environmental issues. Why focus on that in your personal life as well as professional time? I guess it’s the analogy of the butterfly and the ant. The butterfly is fluttering around here and there, and the ant just plods along. I’m an ant. I’ve been doing the same work for 47 years. It’s part of my DNA.
What motivates you to devote time to these organizations? I think it’s important for people to participate. … I’m a firm believer that if you live someplace, you have a responsibility to participate in decisions that are being made.
What are the challenges facing our local state parks? Both of the parks (the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, which includes the Fischer-Hanlon House, and the Benicia State Recreational Area) are in dire need of maintenance. It’s an issue of deferred maintenance. The Fischer-Hanlon House is just one of many state historic buildings we’re going to lose because of deferred maintenance if work isn’t done.
The state recreation area gets lots of use. It could use a lot of tender, loving care. But there’s not adequate funding available for that.
How are the holiday preparations going at your house? The boxes are starting to come down now. It takes a long time to get the boxes down. My job is moving the boxes and organizing the boxes, and then getting out of the way. I mostly do the grunt work—Carol gets all the credit for the aesthetic.
You have to start early because you have to get it done by the holidays. It’s traditional to buy the tree on Thanksgiving weekend, and it’s the last thing to go up. Then I complain about all the stuff (laughing). That’s my nature.
What do you to do relax? I exercise a lot and I’m a baseball fan. I’m a Mets fan and have been since 1962, the first year they existed.
The last couple of years, I’ve done Sierra Club service trips to do work in Alaska state parks. We work on cabins. The past two years we got to stay in cabins we’ve been rehabbing.
I try to still go out in wilderness. We travel a lot; we just came back from Cuba in September. People were very friendly and open. When you’re in Havana, you can go anywhere you want to go. There’s very little police presence. They’re all looking forward to working with the U.S. to improve their life. They can’t grow enough food for the country—they still have rationing. We wanted to get there before Starbucks got there.
What’s next for you? I’m going to continue to stay active in environmental issues, in terms of protecting open space and agricultural lands. I’d like to try to work on developing a countywide park system. So, more of the same. I told you—I’m the ant, not the butterfly.