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Drop the housing cap now

Jon Harvey

Here in the Bay Area, many of us realize that achieving true sustainability takes more than protecting our hills and open space. It also takes wise development within our cities and towns, so people of all incomes can live in walkable neighborhoods near jobs and services.

In Pleasanton, we made a good start toward sustainability in our 1996 General Plan, which included an urban growth boundary to preserve precious open space. But another policy adopted at the same time is now proving to have been a step backward: our housing cap.

Unique in all of California, Pleasanton’s housing cap sets a limit of 29,000 homes, prohibiting even one additional new house or apartment from being built. In 1996, that seemed a long way off. But today, we’re just 2,000 homes away from hitting that ceiling.

The city is about to adopt a new General Plan for the next 15 years. Still, the proposed new plan includes the housing cap.

This is a serious problem. Already, Pleasanton does not have enough homes for the people who work here. In 15 years, the new General Plan will add almost 45,000 more jobs. But the housing cap limits us to only 2,000 more homes.

If we don’t fix this imbalance, we’ll see a lot more driving as people commute here from far-off bedroom communities in the Central Valley and elsewhere. That means much worse traffic and more greenhouse gases.

California is leading a charge to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. In the Bay Area, almost half of that pollution comes from our tailpipes. To reduce our pollution, we need to drive less.

But Pleasanton’s proposed General Plan goes in exactly the wrong direction. Instead of reducing driving, it anticipates a whopping 46 percent increase in driving over the next 15 years as people commute in from far away.

The proposed General Plan also misses the opportunity to build the homes we need close to transit. Studies have repeatedly shown that people living in neighborhoods close to transit drive less. But the proposed plan calls for building very few new homes around regional transit centers such as the BART and ACE stations.

This is attracting notice. In fact, California attorney general Jerry Brown is calling on Pleasanton to change the proposed General Plan. The state Attorney General recently wrote to Pleasanton’s mayor to say that, if the housing cap is not changed, “the city will be in violation of state law.” He also said the city’s environmental analysis of the proposed General Plan “shirks its responsibility to fully analyze and address the greenhouse gas emissions stemming from its proposed development plans and is therefore legally inadequate.”

Urban Habitat has already sued Pleasanton because the housing cap could prevent people with lower incomes from finding the homes they need. A court ruling against the city would take the power to plan out of our hands. A separate suit by the Attorney General would be even worse.

Let’s not let it get to that point. It’s time for our City Council to show leadership. It’s time to drop the housing cap and plan for more new homes around transit.

Jon Harvey is a resident of Pleasanton and a board member of Greenbelt Alliance (www.greenbelt.org), which protects open space and promotes vibrant urban places around the San Francisco Bay Area.

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