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Barnidge: Plan Bay Area marches on, despite torrent of criticism

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By Tom Barnidge, Contra Costa Times Columnist


It will be years before anyone knows if the vision laid down by Plan Bay Area produces its desired results — smarter development, more affordable housing, less traffic congestion, reduced greenhouse gases — but no waiting is required for its opponents’ assessment.

The land-use-and-transportation plan approved Thursday by the Association of Bay Area Governments and Metropolitan Transportation Commission was pilloried in public comment as a social engineering experiment, an attack on property rights, an exercise in collectivism and an assault on the Constitution.

American freedom hasn’t been this threatened since General Zod tore the roof off the White House in “Superman II.”

If that portrayal seems at odds with the intentions of elected officials — city council members and county supervisors — who comprise the MTC and ABAG boards, it is. Their goal, they say, is to plan for population growth by urging communities to zone for mixed-income housing near public transit.

If urban sprawl is curtailed, open spaces can be preserved. If vehicular traffic is reduced, greenhouse gases will be, too. If employees have housing and easy access to work, more businesses will be attracted. There’s some logic to it all.

“If you look at California’s history for the last 50 years,” said Orinda Mayor and MTC Commissioner Amy Worth, “so much of it has been development first, followed by transportation. This combines transportation with land-use planning.”

It goes beyond that, say critics, who see a plan to accommodate the masses and envision tenements sprouting like weeds; who hear talk of enhanced public transit and see an attack on automobiles. From their howls of protest, you’d swear they were being dragged from their homes and locked up in dormitories.

ABAG and MTC officials were on various occasions likened to Karl Marx, Nikita Khrushchev, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. (Everyone forgets Mao Zedong.) If you are a fan of overstatement, this was a chance to see a hyperbole competition.

“Comrades and commissars of the Bay Area regional Politburo,” said one contestant, “I’d like to thank you for providing me with the illusion of public input, which you intend to totally ignore.”

One woman sang her bitterness, to the tune of “America the Beautiful”:

“Oh, dutiful, great bureaucrat, he claims to speak for me.

“A lowly serf, hardly of worth, he knows what’s best, you see.”

Across 3¿1/2 hours, 161 speakers took turns at the microphone — time goes faster if you count them — and the vast majority came armed with biting attacks on officials’ integrity, courage and patriotism.

Worth, who led the meeting, dutifully thanked each speaker for his or her comments, as if they’d complimented her on her appearance.

“On the one hand, it’s tough,” she said of the withering attacks. “On the other, I recognize this is part of the process. People get engaged because they care.”

One voice of support came from Stephanie Reyes of Greenbelt Alliance, a nonprofit land-conservation advocate: “All parts of the plan revolve around public health, a beautiful place to live, housing choices and affordability. They get better under the plan, and without it, they get worse. I don’t want to live in a place that gets dirtier in 25 years.”

The plan does, indeed, look ahead that far, but it’s revisited at regular intervals. So keep those hyperboles handy, folks. We’ll be doing this again in four years.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.

This article appeared in the Contra Costa Times.

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