By Sam Richards
Amid the open spaces of this rural area east of Danville, a developer wants to build houses on a relatively small parcel of land — 30 acres — and has scaled back his proposal over several years to appease neighbors.
Nevertheless, the project continues to generate a fierce backlash among some environmentalists and residents who fear it will cross a sacrosanct boundary — Contra Costa County’s urban limit line — that has not been breached in the Tassajara Valley since its creation in 1990.
The 125-home project site is outside that line, an established outer boundary of commercial and residential development approved by voters.
Opponents say approval of Tassajara Parks, which could happen by year’s end, might open the floodgates to development, in a worst-case scenario triggering a prospective domino effect replacing brown grazing lands and dry-ranching prairie with yet more houses. As many as 964 parcels could be affected, they say.
“I fear that developers could just march right down the (Tassajara) valley, and if they could do it in 30-acre increments, a bit here and a bit there, it all works,” said Donna Gerber, who as a county supervisor in 2000 worked with fellow former supervisor Joe Canciamilla and others to give 14,000 acres of open space and agricultural land urban limit line protection.
Tassajara Parks’ backers say this won’t happen near their project. “There is hardly any private land touching the urban limit line,” said David Bowlby, a consultant and spokesman for the project proposed by Samir F. Kawar. “There aren’t more than two or three parcels where that could happen.”
While other counties have similar types of growth boundaries, Contra Costa and Alameda counties have a voter-approved urban growth boundaries (called the “urban limit line” in Contra Costa).
While voters must approve any move of the urban limit line involving more than 30 acres, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors can unilaterally decide to move parcels of 30 acres or fewer outside (or inside) that line by a four-fifths vote, if certain findings are made. This has happened a few times in Contra Costa, and election has brought a small number of parcels near Pittsburg and elsewhere within the line.
The Tassajara Parks proposal is from FT Land LLC, whose principal is Kawar, a former Jordanian transportation minister who owns the land. The public face of what began in 2007 as the 187-house New Farm project initially was East Bay consultant-power broker Tom Koch, but Bowlby last week adamantly denied that Koch — the lead consultant on Brentwood’s failed 2010 Measure F to move the limit line near that city — has any involvement with Tassajara Parks now.
Gerber said she believes otherwise, and expects Koch will push for a supervisors’ vote on the project before the end of December.
Developer touts ‘green wall’
Bowlby said the plan to deed 616 acres south of the proposed houses to the East Bay Regional Park District as open space for recreational use would create a “green wall” that would protect most of the urban limit line in the Tassajara Valley. But Gerber said the green wall won’t protect anything. “It’s a flim-flam proposal, and I find it offensive,” she said.
As of late October, Contra Costa County planners were evaluating comments on Tassajara Parks’ recirculated draft environmental impact report, one changed significantly by 25 recent comments, most of them about water. The last day to comment is Nov. 14. The next Tassajara Parks hearing, by the county’s zoning administrators, is scheduled for Nov. 7 in Martinez.
To justify moving the urban limit line, supervisors must make at least one finding from a list of seven. One involves whether the project has public benefits.
Kim McKnight, a volunteer traffic guide at Tassajara Hills Elementary School near where the houses would be, said school parking lot and drop-off improvements the project would bring are a considerable benefit. “It’s poorly designed, and I’m surprised no child has been hit so far,” McKnight said.
Another “finding” is presence of a thorough preservation agreement supported by neighboring cities. Gerber asserts an existing proposed “memorandum of understanding” doesn’t qualify as a preservation agreement or, by extension, as a condition for moving the urban limit line.
Opposition to a change
Steve Barr and Diane Burgis, the two county supervisor candidates competing in the Nov. 8 election to represent District 3, which covers most of Tassajara Valley, have not taken a public position, saying that could compromise a vote they may be asked to make if elected. That district contains 51 percent of the land protected by the urban limit line.
Gretchen Logue, co-founder of the Tassajara Valley Preservation Association, whose primary mission is to defend adherence to the urban limit line, said Tassajara Parks would mean more traffic, more stress on wildlife, further crowding of area schools and, perhaps most important, added pressure on the area’s already-depleted underground water table.
While the group Greenbelt Alliance opposes Tassajara Parks, Save Mount Diablo has been working with FT Land LLC to make this a more tolerable project than the original New Farm, said Seth Adams, the group’s land conservation director. Save Mount Diablo is withholding final judgment on the Tassajara Parks project pending a final version of the memo of understanding, he said. But he said his group, unlike Greenbelt Alliance, is “impressed by the conservation aspect” of the 616 acres.
Logue and Richard Fischer, the other Tassajara Valley Preservation Association co-founder, plan to talk to each supervisor about preserving the limit line; the first such meeting, with District 5 Supervisor Federal Glover, went well, Fischer said last week. Gerber and Canciamilla plan similar meetings after the election but before one incumbent, possibly two, leave office.
“We’re trying to give the supervisors a reason to say ‘no,’” Gerber said.
This article was originally posted in the East Bay Times.