Published: Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 17, 2013 at 8:05 a.m.
Jack Balshaw, a former Petaluma city councilman known for his strong opinions and keen intellect, helped rein in the city's rapid growth of the 1970s and still shaped its future.
An East Coast liberal with a sharp wit and an irascible streak, Balshaw at first clashed with Petaluma's “old guard” and then became a leader of a more progressive town government in the 1980s.
Balshaw died May 8 at his Petaluma home after a two-year battle with cancer brought on by delayed detection of a melanoma. He was 78.
“John Balshaw was the original maverick,” said Brian Sobel, a Petaluma political consultant who served on the seven-member council with Balshaw.
Lynn Woolsey, another council colleague who went on to serve 20 years in Congress, said in a 1988 interview that “people see him as a savior.”
“He has more ideas with more depth and breadth than the rest of us put together,” she said.
As a retired Federal Highway Administration engineer and manager, Balshaw settled in Petaluma in 1968 and quickly became involved in civic affairs.
Petaluma was in its “go-go years” at the time, Sobel said, referring to the period of rapid development that ultimately led to the city's groundbreaking growth controls.
Appointed to the Planning Commission in the early 1970s, Balshaw ran for and won a council seat in 1977 after the council declined to reappoint him. He served three council terms from 1977 to 1990.
During that time, the city revised its general plan in 1986, developed the city marina and community center and master-planned the northeast corner of town, including a Santa Rosa Junior College satellite campus and a landscaped parkway.
One of Balshaw's visions was the need for a pedestrian bridge over the Petaluma River Turning Basin, linking downtown to a shopping center that had ample parking. In 1989, the bridge — which Sobel said was “a real dream come true for Jack” — was named after Balshaw.
A feisty East Petaluma resident, Balshaw initially clashed with his more conservative westside council colleagues, repeatedly on the short end of 6-1 votes.
But as the oldtimers were replaced by Woolsey, Sobel, Michael Davis and Larry Tencer, Balshaw became a council leader and wasn't hesitant to challenge city administrators over policy details.
“I'll say it, I come off abrasive,” he said in a 1988 interview. “I want to get the job done. If I'm not liked, well ...”
“He was always a step ahead of everybody,” Sobel said.
Born and raised in Rhode Island, Balshaw served in the U.S. Army after World War II and attended the University of Rhode Island on the G.I, Bill, earning a degree in civil engineering. He went to work for the federal highway agency during the boom years of interstate highway construction, retiring in 1983 at age 48.
Jim Balshaw of Petaluma said he valued the time spent with his father afforded by his early retirement. “He was always there for us,” Balshaw said, recalling his father's voracious reading habit and fondness for camping and hiking.
A private pilot who kept an airplane at the Petaluma Municipal Airport, Balshaw “enjoyed seeing the world” from an aviator's perspective, his son said.
Balshaw also is survived by his wife, Janet Otis Balshaw of Petaluma, and his other son, David Balshaw of New Hampton, N.H. The family will hold a private memorial service in June.
Memorial donations may be made to Hospice of Petaluma, 416 Payran St., Petaluma 94952, or the Yosemite Conservancy, 101 Montgomery St., Suite 1700, San Francisco 94104.
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