Environmentalists gear up for growth saga in San Ramon

Lisa Vorderbrueggen

For East Bay environmental groups, June’s ugly Brentwood ballot box drama was a dress rehearsal.

San Ramon leaders opened the curtains last week on the main act with a unanimous vote to place on its Nov. 2 ballot a complex growth package that has a new city general plan, hillside protection ordinance, climate action plan and a 2,229-acre expansion of its urban growth boundary to include Tassajara Valley.

Save Mount Diablo, Greenbelt Alliance and the Sierra Club have been ramping up for months in anticipation of San Ramon’s measure.

Last week they unveiled a Facebook page, “People Opposed to Developers Breaking San Ramon’s Urban Growth Boundary,” or for short, PODBSRUGB. (Is title brevity no longer a virtue?)

The environmentalists’ spokesmen unleashed a sharply worded opening salvo Monday, accusing city officials of deliberately greenwashing the package — by adding climate action and hillside protection — to cloak a an undisclosed plan to eventually approve thousands of houses in Tassajara Valley.

City officials fiercely reject the allegations.

San Ramon Mayor Abram Wilson calls the environmentalists presumptuous outsiders who systematically replenish their organizations’ bank accounts through populist opposition campaigns and lawsuit settlements.

“I take it personally that you are stating that I am not telling the truth,” Mayor Abram Wilson fired back Monday night. “San Ramon is my home. I live here, not you. I would never do anything detrimental to the quality of life in San Ramon.”

The comparison with the feisty Brentwood campaign, however, is more political than substantiative.

Affected landowners in Brentwood clearly wrote and funded Measure F, which included a development agreement.

In contrast, San Ramon officials produced its measure in response to the Dec. 31 expiration date of its 2002 voter-approved general plan, hillside ordinance and growth boundary.

It contains no explicit housing approvals for Tassajara Valley. Rather, it mandates the creation of a specific plan that may or may not recommend development there.

Environmentalists say there is no reason to write a specific plan unless the city contemplates development and as evidence, they have eagerly seized on the most obvious link between Brentwood’s measure and Tassajara Valley: Tom Koch.

The former Shapell Industries executive was one of the chief architects behind Measure F and has for years represented Samir Kawar, one of Tassajara Valley’s largest landowners.

The environmentalists repeatedly name Koch and speculate that he would be among the financial beneficiaries if an expanded city growth boundary leads to a more generous development climate.

Currently, the county is processing Kawar’s New Farm proposal, a 189-unit project with permanent irrigated orchards and crops in exchange for housing approvals on land outside the county’s urban limit line.

Critics predict Kawar will abandon New Farm and seek a more intense development approval with San Ramon. Koch could not be reached for comment.

There is no denying that the very mention of Tassajara Valley evokes strong community reaction.

A 6,000-unit development proposal for the rolling grasslands east of San Ramon was the driving impetus behind a controversial 2000 Contra Costa board of supervisors’ decision to tighten the urban limit line, placing the Tassajara Valley outside the county boundary. San Ramon voters in 2006 affirmed the exclusion of Tassajara Valley when they approved the most recent iteration of their city’s urban growth boundary.

Given the long-standing public interest in Tassajara Valley, environmentalists will have the political edge in this campaign, unless proponents can convince voters that expanding the city’s line to include it will prevent another Dougherty Valley. The county in the 1990s approved building 11,000 units there.

That said, there is no evidence that Wilson or anyone in San Ramon city government has a secret pact with Tassajara Valley landowners or Koch.

Nor are the folks at Save Mount Diablo, Sierra Club or the Greenbelt Alliance using their cause as a cover for a covert moneymaking scheme.

Both sides should take care to avoid excessive cynicism as a campaign strategy lest they provoke voter blowback.


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