.Upfront: One size fits all?

Opposing views of Marin's future development

by Peter Seidman

It’s never productive in Marin to deliver a major planning document and throw it on the table as a done deal.

Mill Valley learned that when the city produced a plan to rehabilitate Miller Avenue. The plan, which featured street realignment and a vision of mixed-use buildings in a style sympathetic to the town’s architecture, triggered an outcry from residents who said that the city had failed to engage them before the plan reached the drawing board.

The experience in Mill Valley could have been a model for what to do—and what not to do—when representatives of Plan Bay Area drove to Marin from the East Bay and presented the county and its cities with a document that many Marin residents said looked like a done deal.

That was in 2013, a year marked by raucous public meetings marked by aggressive contention. A blizzard of criticism emanated from Marin critics who said that Plan Bay Area threatened the character of the county and its cities. Little communication existed between those who held opposing viewpoints. Less compromise was in the air.

The reality is more complicated and touches on existential issues for Bay Area cities and counties: Should the state dictate the number of new homes a community should build in a planning cycle? Or should the state allow communities to enact incentives and innovative attractions to developers that could accomplish the same goal but possibly without adding new buildings in a community that doesn’t want them?

Critics often miss the mark when they attack ABAG for mandating the number of new homes the agency says communities will need to accommodate projected growth in population. Starting at the top, the California State Department of Housing and Community Development mandates that regional government councils assign housing requirements to local counties and cities. ABAG is the local government council in the Bay Area. It has jurisdiction over the nine Bay Area counties and the cities within those counties. ABAG assigns each an anticipated regional housing need determination.

The process mandates that counties and cities only identify areas that could accommodate growth to meet future need. It does not mandate changes in current zoning or planning or building approvals. But if counties and cities fail to identify areas and make a good faith effort to accommodate growth, they open themselves to housing-based lawsuits. Critics of the process say it’s a one-size-fits-all top-down sword held over the heads of cities.

A central vision of how AB 32 would work includes a scenario in which counties, cities and towns will, among other goals, promote efficient energy use, encourage workforce housing and push for improved public transit.

In 2008, the Legislature took AB 32 another step down the road to regional planning with SB 375. It’s part of the Sustainable Communities Strategy. It seeks to coordinate land-use and transportation planning, a first in regional planning in the state. It pushes for integrating non-motorized transportation, public transit, walking and transit-oriented development. “Improved planning means cleaner cities, less time stuck in your car and healthier, more sustainable communities,” said California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary D. Nichols in a press release.

AB 32 and SB 375 begat Plan Bay Area, which remains a sore point for critics who say that the state and its regional agencies have no business trying to fit Marin for one-size-fits-all planning future.

But the tenure of the criticism has moderated, as evidenced by a more than civil workshop held on May 16 in Novato. Representatives from ABAG and the Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM) came to Novato to gather input and disseminate information about the next iteration of Plan Bay Area, which receives an update every four years. The next one is set to begin in 2017. (TAM will hold its own public workshop about transportation issues in the county on June 20 from 11am to 3pm at San Rafael High School.)

Plan Bay Area staff already had scheduled an open house in Marin from 5pm to 7pm on May 28. But that workshop leaves no room for an active pubic debate. The agencies will set up tables in a room at the Civic Center, where planners and public information officers from the two agencies will interact with participants, but only in a one-to-one format. The agencies plan no general discussion.

That lack of interaction bothered Marin representatives to ABAG, says Pat Eklund, Novato mayor pro tem. “The Marin delegates felt very strongly that just having an open house was not going to really give us the open dialogue that we wanted.” The Marin delegates wanted a workshop atmosphere in which ideas could bounce around and participants could learn as well as contribute ideas, says Eklund, who in addition to representing Novato at ABAG is the liaison to ABAG for Marin cities. That lack of interaction played a role in the anger Plan Bay area critics exhibited in 2013.

But ABAG and MTC rejected the notion of having an open house before an open workshop format, Eklund says, “So we decided to go forward with the public workshop. We felt it was critical to have an open dialogue with the community.”

The Marin representatives have been engaging ABAG in an attempt to convince the agency that Marin is different than the rest of the Bay Area and the differences should count in setting policies and growth projections. The message got through, although it remains until the four-year update lands on the desk to see the extent to which ABAG has received the message. Promising signs do exist that ABAG is at least listening. Eklund says, “ABAG told Marin delegates that, yes, [ABAG is] specifically looking at Marin and perhaps the approach they have been taking for estimating population, jobs and housing needs has not been necessarily appropriate because of the county’s demographics.”

The import of that transition from the 2013 stance of throwing the plan on the table to accepting calls for another look at Marin merit an exclamation, according to Eklund, who says, “That’s huge.” The need for a renewed look that would inform the next iteration of Plan Bay Area rests on the age of the Marin population, which is the oldest in the Bay Area. Because more older adults on a percentage basis live in Marin than other counties, the projections of population growth and job growth may be inflated in the calculations that produced the first iteration of the plan.

That’s not to say that all is sweetness and light in the Marin relationship revolving around Plan Bay Area. Eklund provides a monthly update on the website for Marin County Council Mayors and Councilmembers. In a list of issues that went right and issues still outstanding, Eklund states that, acknowledging critics of the plan, the next iteration of growth projections and targets should take into account the available water supply, sea level rise and air quality, among other benchmarks.

The stakes are serious. The concept of tying together jobs, housing and transportation is based on allocations of transportation funding. According to an MTC document the agency compiled in 2012 for the first Plan Bay Area cycle, “One Bay Area Grant is a new funding approach that better integrates the region’s federal transportation program with California’s climate law and the Sustainable Communities Strategy. Funding distribution to the counties will encourage land-use and housing policies that support the production of housing with supportive transportation investments.”

Marin residents can contribute comments to the next iteration of the plan via the ABAG Virtual Open House website. Contributors have until May 31 to add their comments. MTC has an informative Vital Signs page to disseminate information about transportation and potential growth.

Although the spotlight often focuses on greenhouse gas emissions because of the state laws, proponents of the Sustainable Communities Strategy say that attention also should focus on the quality of life that can come with transit oriented development—especially for an older population that can, perhaps, no longer jump in a car. Making incremental improvements can be important, they say. Even if not all residents of a transit-oriented development give up their cars entirely, a substantive quality of life for many individuals and for a community can accrue.

Along with the philosophical and the more esoteric effects of the Sustainable Communities Strategy, come some practical implications for transportation funding.

MTC, for example, receives gas tax disbursement from the feds and takes 50 percent of it for regional projects. The other 50 percent goes to the nine Bay Area counties, which must spend their set percentages in priority development areas.

The problem for Marin, because critics of the plan rejected priority development areas, is that only two priority development areas of consequence remain in Marin: Downtown San Rafael and Marin City. Other cities having no priority development areas will see only half of the federal gas tax money—and they must share it with the rest of the non-priority development areas in the county.

Contact the writer at [email protected]


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