This article was originally published in the August 26, 2014 edition of the Marin Independent Journal.
By Nels Johnson firstname.lastname@example.org @nelsjohnsonnews on Twitter
A housing plan allowing development of at least 502 dwellings in Marin’s unincorporated areas has the blessing of county planners and will be forwarded to state officials for preliminary review.
The county Planning Commission on Monday approved a tentative plan earmarking sites for 361 low- and moderate-income and 141 market-rate dwellings, after making minor revisions to a program endorsed earlier this summer.
Thanks largely to the addition of Silveira-St. Vincent’s lands to the housing list, the plan calls for more than twice as many units as required by state policies in order to provide what officials called a “buffer” enabling planning flexibility. The state says Marin’s unincorporated areas need to provide for potential development of just 185 housing units — including 37 moderate and 87 low-income units — through 2023.
Two commissioners protested that because of extra units allowed developers of low- and moderate-income housing, the program could potentially pave the way for more than 600 dwellings. They joined colleagues in agreeing to submit the plan to the state for comment before the commission takes a final look in November and passes the program along to county supervisors.
The commission voted 5-2 to reject a proposal to trim the 502-unit plan by about 100 dwellings to offset potential “density bonus” or extra units for affordable housing developers. Commissioners Don Dickenson and Margot Biehle dissented, noting county general plan policies allow up to 502 units, not 600 or more, at the 10 sites the new program earmarks for housing.
County policies, for example, allow 221 homes at the Silveira-St. Vincent’s tract, but bonus incentives could boost the number to 298. “If it’s closer to 300, what good’s the general plan?” Commissioner Biehle wondered.
Colleague Katherine Crecelius said any bid for more than 221 units on the ranch tract as agreed during laborious general plan proceedings would be a highly unlikely “kamikaze” gambit. And county principal planner Leelee Thomas noted that as a practical matter, only seven “density bonus” units have been approved countywide in recent years, including only two by the county in the past decade. “They are not exactly flying out the door,” Thomas noted.
Several commissioners noted that the key point of the housing program is to increase affordable housing, and that no matter how many units the county provides, the need for more will remain. “It’s not just about playing number and buffer games, it is about trying to address” the lack of affordable housing in Marin, Commissioner John Eller said. “We’re way short of what the actual need is,” added Commissioner Peter Thelan.
As carved out during “straw votes” a month ago, then endorsed on Monday, the commission’s program drops two controversial Tam Valley sites from the housing list. Potential dwellings envisioned by the program through 2023 if developers step forward include 268 low income, or 181 more than the state requires; 93 moderate-income, or 56 more than required, and 141 market rate, or 80 more than required.
The designations include: Silveira-St. Vincent’s, 100 low-income, 50 moderate and 71 market-rate units; Golden Gate Baptist Seminary in Strawberry, 20 low and 20 moderate income; Drake Avenue in Marin City, 15 low income; Woodland at Auburn, California Park in San Rafael, 40 low income; Marinwood Village, 72 low income and 10 market rate; Sir Francis Drake behind 7- Eleven at Oak Manor in Fairfax, 10 moderate income; Easton Point on Paradise Drive, Tiburon, 43 market rate; Indian Valley Road, Novato, five market rate; Tamarin Lane, Novato, three market rate, and 150 Shoreline Highway, three moderate income. The plan also calls for 40 second units: 21 low, 10 moderate and nine market rate.
A familiar parade of speakers including housing advocates, density foes, neighborhood activists, nonprofit agencies and environmental groups, many of whom dominated previous housing hearings, repeated arguments, concerns, philosophies and theories. More than 30 speakers in an audience of about 50 rose to review the issues at hand.
Everyone seemed to embrace affordable housing, but opinion differed on where to put it. Some asserted their community wasn’t the proper place or asserted San Rafael neighborhoods were being asked to provide more than the area’s fair share. Others worried about the density bonus situation.
Foes of high-density complexes said they supported “infill” housing blended into neighborhoods, painted grim scenarios of WinCup-style “Corte Mazillas” or warned that special interests and agencies who stand to profit were behind a rush to develop, and urged more environmental study and reflection before proceeding with a blueprint. Traffic is jammed, transit is inadequate, water is in short supply, schools are full and environmental issues are overlooked, development opponents said.
“There is no mystery as to why developers want to develop now,” Jennifer Larson of Corte Madera told the commission. “The mystery is why you want to roll out the red carpet.”
Affordable housing advocates argued attractive apartment projects can be designed to brighten the community, noted including more dwellings in a project cuts costs while increasing affordability, and asserted Marin must do its part to accommodate California’s growing population. They noted extraordinary public outreach included 16 workshops or hearings already held on a plan that in most respects was similar to one approved in 2013 covering the past several years.
Marge Macris, a former county planning director who spoke for the Environmental Housing Collaborative, said there has been plenty of time for public review of the plan and urged its submission to state officials as scheduled. The lineup of other groups urging the commission to proceed as proposed included Habitat for Humanity, Sustainable San Rafael, the Greenbelt Alliance and Marin Association of Public Employees.
“There will be more people in California in five years whether we like it or not,” noted Roland Katz, head of the employees association, the largest union at the Civic Center. “These people will need housing,” Katz continued, adding that half of the Civic Center’s employees live outside the county. “We urge you to move forward with the plan.”
Pam Drew of Novato begged to differ, saying growth must be limited to save the planet. “Do not schedule four times the number of homes required,” she said. San Rafael attorney Ed Yates contended the buffer of extra dwelling sites will pave the way for more projects, hand local authority to developers and disenfranchise the public. “There’s no reason to rush,” he said, suggesting officials ignore a Jan. 31 deadline for submitting a plan.
Other focused on development sites on their own areas, with a Cal Park resident saying he was shocked to learn of plans allowing 40 low-income dwellings on 1.7 acres near his backyard — a project that would be “two thirds the size of the existing neighborhood.”
Both sides traded accusations, with transit advocate David Schonbrunn claiming neighborhoods are being stirred up by “instigators” with “right-wing goals.” Density foes said the real culprits are special interests including agency advocates who depend on grant “revenue streams.”
“You have the power. You have the money. But you don’t have the people,” declared Steve Nestel, head of savemarinwood.org, who indicated the process is rigged. “You’re going to push this through,” he told the commission. “It doesn’t matter what I or anyone else says.”
Planning staffers said sending the plan to the state for review does not preclude changes by the commission or county supervisors later this year.
The commission will welcome partisans on all sides of the housing debate back when it takes another look at the plan at 1 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Civic Center.