Anyone for a game of Agenda 21?

By Peter Seidman

When two regional planning agencies earlier this year made the Bay Area rounds to hold a series of workshops about Plan Bay Area, the sustainable communities proposal, a group of virulent opponents also made the rounds.

Rather than promoting rational discussions, their aggressive and strident strategy, meant to disrupt the meetings, succeeded in spreading misinformation and echoed a Tea Party conspiracy theory that has become increasingly hostile.

The workshops were aimed at how the Bay Area can meet the mandates of AB 32, legislation that calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and a subsequent piece of legislation, SB 375, that for the first time created true regional planning, a goal long sought by serious planners.

SB 375, which took effect in 2009, seeks to promote the Sustainable Communities Strategy planning paradigm. The aim is to persuade cities and counties to consider climate change and the impacts of regional planning—with a particular emphasis on reducing vehicular travel—when making planning decisions. In addition to reducing vehicle emissions, the strategy seeks to encourage smart growth, which can foster transit-oriented development and nonmotorized transportation.

The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), in partnership with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, are collaborating to produce the comprehensive plan that integrates land use with transportation.

Shouting at the workshops prevented attendees who wanted to learn about Plan Bay Area from getting the facts. Opponents were in no mood to discuss details. They were there to disrupt. And they were organized.

Opposition increased as projections of the number of jobs that will be created in the Bay Area and the number of households cities and counties will have to add for the people who take those jobs became public. A preliminary estimate was criticized in Marin and elsewhere by those who said the number of projected jobs was much too high, that the number of households Marin and its cities would be expected to accommodate was unrealistic.

A review refined those preliminary projections. But critics have continued to charge that ABAG (the recipient of the most clubbing) still is foisting an unfair burden on Marin; they say the numbers speak for themselves. But a look at the percentage of the increases Plan Bay Area projects for Marin shows that the numbers do not deserve the virulent attacks on a legitimate attempt at regional planning.

Plan Bay Area sets responsibilities for each of the Bay Area’s nine counties relating to growth in jobs and households that will occur out to 2040. Comparing that projected growth to the growth that occurred between 1980 and 2010 is eye opening, considering the emotional nature of the attacks and the charge that ABAG and MTC are trying to cram growth down Marin’s throat.

According to the latest Sustainable Communities Strategy figures, from 1980 to 2010, the number of Marin households increased 16 percent; it projects that by 2040, the number of households will increase by just 8.5 percent. (The projected increases in Marin County households pales in comparison to the 35.6 percent increase projected in Santa Clara County by 2040.)

From 1980 to 2010, Novato households increased by 31 percent; Sustainable Communities projects an increase of just 5.7 percent by 2040.

San Rafael households increased by 22 percent from 1980 to 2010; projections show an increase of 16 percent by 2040.

Corte Madera saw households increase by 18 percent from 1980 to 2010; an increase of just 7.4 percent is projected by 2040. To put that Corte Madera percentage in perspective, Sustainable Communities projects that the town should accommodate just 280 additional households by 2040.

The Corte Madera Town Council, angry at initially higher ABAG projections, voted to give notice to the agency that the town wanted to end its membership. The town has until next year to decide whether to break the ABAG bond. Among alternatives discussed is a proposal to form a Marin council of governments that would mirror ABAG. But that, and the withdrawal from ABAG, could reduce regional planning participation and influence. The concept of regional planning depends on each county assuming its dutiful responsibility to house the residents that will work within each jurisdiction. By providing housing, public transportation and creating sustainable communities, the entire Bay Area will benefit as well as residents in each county. If a county, like Marin, refuses to assume its responsibility to create jobs and housing within its borders, pressure shifts to adjacent counties, continuing and exacerbating suburban sprawl.

“No matter what we do, we will grow (slowly). Nothing seems to suggest that people are going to stop having children or stop enjoying living in Marin,” says Marla Fields of Sustainable Novato. “We have to plan accordingly for some measure of growth that’s sustainable. That’s what this is about.” Rejecting the relatively modest rate of growth envisioned in Sustainable Communities will have negative impacts for Marin, she adds. “If we don’t build our fair share of housing here, we will continue the pattern of having the traffic jams on our roads leading to the places where people can afford homes and live, places up in Sonoma County and the East Bay. Our children grow up and graduate and maybe want to live (in Marin) and have no options.”

The type of future housing should be an essential part of the equation, says Whitney Merchant, Marin field representative for the Greenbelt Alliance. “No one is going to take anyone’s home away from them,” she says. “Neighborhoods are not going to change. But our population is skewing over 65 and under 30, and (many in) those two groups of people don’t want to or cannot afford to live in a single-family home. Keep your single-family homes and enjoy them. But we should be planning for the young and seniors.”

A common misperception is that Plan Bay Area is aimed at promoting affordable or income-restricted housing. In reality the plan is a projection for the total housing stock in the Bay Area, the vast majority of which will be market rate.

Another point of pushback here is the belief that because the county has so much open space and policies to protect it, the county and its cities essentially are built out. No more room at the inn. That should count for something when the regional agencies project housing numbers, along with the supposition that Marin should get credit for being a park that serves the greater Bay Area. But that kind of Disneyland approach belies the need to accommodate the changing demographics. It’s not enough to just look good.

And the assumption that Marin has no options to accommodate any additional housing breaks faith with the planning strategy that created slow growth and the open-space policies in the county. The modern planning era in Marin started in 1966 when a resident revolt stopped a proposed east-west freeway and vast development in West Marin.

In a history published in 2007 about Marin’s fight against sprawl within the county, Louise Nelson Dyble of the University of Southern California writes in the Journal of Urban History, “Marin’s innovative and powerful Countywide Plan, released publicly in 1971…provided the template for all subsequent growth-control efforts. It described three permanent land use zones: a City Centered Corridor in the east along Highway 101; a central Inland Rural Corridor reserved for agriculture and compatible land uses; and the western Coastal Recreation Corridor.” Later a Baylands Corridor was added.

The multi-corridor plan was designed to keep as much open space as possible and guide necessary growth along the City Centered Corridor along the freeway. Ironically, that’s where the pushback comes from today, residents in the City Centered Corridor. The opposition discounts the original vision.

“While goals of environmental preservation and growth control in West Marin were realized, goals for housing, density, mixed-use development and community diversity were not,” writes Dyble. “Marin’s cities added on their own measures protecting the character of existing neighborhoods. The result was commercial development and job growth accompanied by worsening traffic congestion, increasing housing costs and social homogenization. In the 1970s, when Marin’s growth rate was approaching zero, Sonoma County was the fastest growing county in the entire Bay Area. Marin’s policies have exacerbated the persistent housing shortages of the Bay Area, making the problems of sprawl and the pressure for development all the worse for its neighbors.”

That’s what the Sustainable Communities Strategy attempts to ameliorate. Marin communities will grow (slowly) and residents will be asked to accommodate that (slow) growth—this is part of Marin’s membership in a wider Bay Area society.

The raucous pushback at the workshops earlier this year, in Marin and elsewhere on the Plan Bay Area circuit, revealed a contingent of Bay Area residents who reject that proposed compact with neighboring counties. In a kind of perverse “get off my lawn” admonition to ABAG, critics said they just want to be left alone to grow—or not—the way they see fit. Neighbors be damned.

But there’s also an undercurrent to the criticism that harbors a supposedly sinister conspiracy theory. And although many Marin residents have legitimate and rational questions about the methodology that derived the plan’s household and jobs numbers, which they say should be the focus of a continuing debate, the conspiracy theorists are another breed of cat.

A letter in the Independent Journal posits that Plan Bay Area and the Legislature are forcing their will on “our communities.” That line of reasoning argues that unelected officials are responsible for the plan, regardless of the fact that ABAG and MTC comprise elected officials from local communities. The letter writer, whose name will remain anonymous to protect an embarrassing misallocation of intelligence, states, “We do not need help from the Association of Bay Area Governments, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission or any other group of Soviet-style unelected overseers to tell us how our communities should be laid out.”

That exhortation echoes an attack that Tea Party activists are raising across the country. They believe that smart growth, sustainable communities, calls for increased public transportation and similar sustainability goals really are an attack on property rights designed to force people into living in bleak high-density housing. The nexus of their theory is Agenda 21. In 1992, the United Nations passed a nonbinding resolution calling for nations and their cities and counties to use fewer resources and conserve open space—by focusing development on already developed areas. Not unlike Marin’s original plan to steer development along the City Centered Corridor. The conspiracy theorists are popping up across the country at planning commissions and sustainability sessions, sounding an alarm at what they perceive is a One World Order assault.

The obstructionist participants who traveled the Plan Bay Area workshop circuit knowingly or unknowingly tapped the Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists’ talking points. They said Plan Bay Area is a veiled attempt to force Bay Area communities to submit to a greater (not so) good.

Their objections ignore the facts: Local communities still have ultimate control of when and where any housing gets built. They also have control over the design of that housing. Plan Bay Area continues and expands the Marin-based concept of the City Centered Corridor.

Debating numbers is legitimate. Calling up John Birch Society conspiracy theories is not. Marin long ago decided to leave the hills alone.

To keep reading: http://pacificsun.com/news/show_story.php?id=4453

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