Bay Area Open Space Under Threat by Sprawl, Study Warns

By Peter Fimrite

The combination of a sizzling economy and a shortage of housing has left hundreds of thousands of acres of Bay Area open space — from ranches in Antioch to scenic landscapes in San Mateo — in danger of being developed, according to a report being released Tuesday by a land conservation group.

The study, called At Risk, found that 293,100 acres of farmland and natural areas could be paved over in the next 30 years if suburban sprawl is not stopped.

Wholesale bulldozing is not inevitable, though, according to the report by San Francisco’s Greenbelt Alliance, which seeks to steer all new development into areas that have already been urbanized. In fact, the open space under threat in the Bay Area has been reduced by 29,700 acres since 2012, when the last At Risk report was released.

Jeremy Madsen, chief executive of the nonprofit group, said deft management of growth by local governments has saved open space in many bay counties.

“Obviously we are in a hot economy, with lots of growth pressure on the region, and yet over the last five years the amount of land at risk has dropped,” Madsen said. “It means we’ve got lots of development pressure, but we’ve done a good job putting policies and plans in place to tell growth where it should go.”

The study, which has been produced every few years since 1989, took into account zoning rules, historic land uses, desirability and housing needs before assigning risk to each county in the Bay Area.

Contra Costa County tops the Bay Area, the report said, with 62,000 acres of land vulnerable to potential development, an increase of almost one-third since 2012. Pittsburg, Antioch, Oakley and Brentwood, which have all continued to sprawl outward, are the biggest trouble spots, according to the report.

It notes that developers in Antioch want to build 1,667 housing units on 550 acres of grasslands. The proposal, called the Ranch, would plop the housing, a recreation center, a fire station and five parks in southern Antioch, where trails would link them to the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve.

Meanwhile, Brentwood has been “rapidly consuming farms and ranches in every direction,” and is trying to annex a large area southwest of the city. Developers want to carve up the picturesque Tassajara Valley and, if county planners don’t stop them, “could pave over the county’s golden hills, farmland and habitat for wildlife,” the report said.

Santa Clara, with 54,100 acres being eyed for a concrete coating, is the county with the second-most to lose, the report found. It said more than half of the remaining farmland could sprout buildings. That includes much of the Coyote Valley between San Jose and Morgan Hill, part of which is still zoned for industrial development.

In Solano County, feverish land speculation has put 44,600 acres of oak-dotted hillsides and valleys at risk, said the Greenbelt Alliance. Vacaville and Fairfield have proposed annexing agricultural and grazing land in an effort to meet regional housing requirements. Some 27 percent of Solano’s vast wetlands and groundwater basins is in danger, according to the report.

The study is an attempt by the Greenbelt Alliance, which has long fought for the passage of urban-growth boundaries, to prevent development outside city centers, a challenge complicated by the Bay Area’s affordable housing crisis. Madsen said the goal is not to stop new housing, but to persuade local governments to approve responsible development in populated areas, where businesses and infrastructure are already in place and driving can be kept at a minimum.

“We are some of the strongest advocates of housing, but we believe that growth should go in the right places — in existing urbanized areas,” Madsen said. “That means investing in funding for affordable housing and development of new homes near BART stations or transit instead of out on farmland or in rural areas.”

Kerry Fugett, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, said her group has worked with the Greenbelt Alliance to push this type of project, including high-density housing around stations for the North Bay’s soon-to-open SMART train. She said there has been no organized opposition to that concept.

“The most opposition we see comes from NIMBYism,” she said.

Madsen said Mountain View provided an example of smart growth when it rebuilt the out-of-date San Antonio Shopping Center a few years ago, adding housing and pathways. The flip side, he said, was seen in Palo Alto in 2013 when residents held a successful referendum to stop a 60-unit affordable senior housing plan, called the Maybell Project, near El Camino Real. A much smaller plan for the location was approved in 2016.

The 2013 vote to block the project “had a real dampening effect on sustainable development in Palo Alto,” Madsen said.

To read more, visit http://bit.ly/2jzajJ8.

This article was originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle.

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