Bill Center served a term as an El Dorado County supervisor, but friends and colleagues say it was his decades as an activist advocating for regional planning and environmental causes that helped shape the county and the future of the Sierra Nevada.
Center, an avid whitewater rafter who with his wife, Robin, owned and operated Camp Lotus Lodge and Campground, a rafting resort near Coloma, died Sept. 18 of stomach cancer. He was 68.
Often a lightning rod in the county’s struggles over growth and land use, Center was an author of Measure Y, approved by county voters in 1998, which requires developers to pay the cost of improving roads to handle the additional traffic their projects cause. In the 1970s and ’80s, he led the fight against a series of water projects and hydroelectric dams that he feared would harm the American River environment and recreational activities, including rafting.
Critics characterized him as a agitator, who often worked behind the scenes, said Ron Briggs, a former county supervisor, who, like Center, represented communities including Cool, Coloma and Lotus – an area popular with rafters, equestrians, hikers and bicyclists. Briggs said Center led by inspiring and empowering people.
The two met when their children were members of a swim team.
“There was no politics in the relationship,” Briggs said. “He was pretty liberal and I’m pretty conservative, but when it came to El Dorado County, we were in agreement.”
Briggs said Center stressed the importance of looking ahead, to envision what life in the county, and throughout the Sierra, would be like in 50 or 100 years.
“Bill always had a full command of the facts,” Briggs said. “I always hated to argue with him.”
Center’s father, Norman Robert Center, was a conservationist who ran Camp Mather near Yosemite for the city of San Francisco, and his mother, Emily McDermott Minton Center, was a teacher. Bill Center was born July 19, 1949, in Berkeley and was the youngest of three children. He spent most of his youth in Fort Bragg, and was an exchange student in Christchurch, New Zealand, for a year in high school, said his daughter, Rebecca Foster. He attended Stanford University, but left after two years. Center later attended Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University. He earned an associate degree in creative writing, but began leading rafting trips on Sierra rivers.
“The thing that struck me was to see incredibly natural, unspoiled places,” Center said in a 2000 story in The Sacramento Bee. “You experience going through darkened caves, through clouds of hatching mayflies, past incredible limestone cliffs, and you are awestruck. There is a major confluence between people and place, and it really does change people’s lives.”
His activism began in the 1970s when he was part of a losing fight to stop construction of the New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River. The effort led him to help start Friends of the River, which fought the Auburn Dam and other water projects.
Center and his wife settled in El Dorado County in 1976. They lived for a year in a teepee near the American River in Coloma, before building a house that had sod roofing and solar power. They purchased Camp Lotus in 1978. Center also was operations manager for ARTA river trips and was a co-founder of California River Trips, providing free river excursions with ARTA guides as fundraisers for local environmental, peace, Sierra Club and other nonprofit groups in the county. Over the years, Foster said, her parents employed hundreds of young people at Camp Lotus during the summer, and her father was a mentor to many.
Center ran for county supervisor in 1990 and won an upset victory over Gene Chappie, the appointed incumbent and a veteran of nearly 40 years in politics. Chappie had first served on the Board of Supervisors in the 1950s, and later as an assemblyman and congressman. Center contended Chappie’s real estate development activities conflicted with his job as a county supervisor reviewing proposed developments, while Chappie’s supporters questioned whether Center, as a rafting operator, could objectively oversee future water development projects in the county.
Center lost a re-election bid in 1994 in a backlash over logging cutbacks and his slow-growth policies.
I always told Bill that his name was apropos. He was the center of our community, the center of discussion and debate.
Howard Penn, executive director, Conservation and Planning League
His activism kicked into high gear after he left office. In 1998, he worked successfully to pass Measure Y, to control traffic congestion by forcing developers to pay the cost of new roads, and to defeat Measure W, which would have cut commercial rafting on the south fork of the American River by more than 50 percent.
Over the years, Center came to be viewed as more consensus builder than agitator. When Measure Y, which included a sunset clause, returned to the ballot in 2008, Briggs said he asked Center to serve on a committee along with developers to modify the measure. While Measure Y ensured that developers paid for roads needed for growth, it also made it tougher for the county to reach its affordable housing goals and attract commercial development.
Center told The Bee in 2008 that he supported modifications that would encourage affordable housing that could help reduce commute traffic on roadways and commercial development that is needed to keep tax dollars in the county.
Briggs noted that there was no ballot argument against the 2008 version of Measure Y and it passed it by a wider margin than in 1998.
“I always told Bill that his name was apropos,” said Howard Penn, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League and a longtime friend of Center. “He was the center of our community, the center of discussion and debate. He had enough knowledge to bring people together to find the center. As he got older and wiser, he was able to do that with a quieter voice.”
Center, who served on boards and committees with numerous organizations, was secretary-treasurer of the Planning and Conservation League at the time of his death, and he served on the advisory board of the Sierra Nevada Alliance.
Foster said her father also was a co-founder of the Coloma-based American River Conservancy, which has purchased land along the river.
“His reach was so broad,” Briggs said. “As I talk to people in the environmental community, he was like the godfather.”
In addition to his wife, Robin of Coloma, and daughter, Rebecca Foster of San Francisco, Center is survived by his son, Charlie Center of Lotus, sister Sue Brown of Santa Rosa, brother Bob Center of Grass Valley and five grandchildren. Foster said her brother, an attorney, joined the family business in February, and he and his mother will continue to operate Camp Lotus.
Foster said a memorial gathering for her father is planned, but no date had been set.