By Paul Rogers
Nearly 300,000 acres across the Bay Area — an area 10 times the size of San Francisco — remain at risk of sprawl development, according to a new report released Tuesday, despite the region’s momentous gains over the past 30 years of preserving parks and open space.
Contra Costa, Sonoma and Santa Clara counties have the most land potentially facing bulldozers, said the Greenbelt Alliance, a San Francisco-based environmental group that conducts the most comprehensive survey of development patterns in the Bay Area every five years.
“We should be proud of what we’ve accomplished in the Bay Area,” said Jeremy Madsen, CEO of the Greenbelt Alliance. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.”
With the Bay Area a major jobs engine that brings in more people every year, most cities have not kept pace with housing needs, causing developers and some environmental groups to call for streamlining rules to make it easier to build within existing urban areas.
From the Marin headlands to Mount Diablo to Henry Coe State Park, the Bay Area arguably has the most protected open space of any major metropolitan region in the United States.
Of 4.4 million total acres in the Bay Area, the report found:
- 27 percent is permanently protected in national parks, state parks, local parks, wildlife refuges and open space preserves, the legacy of more than 100 years of conservation work.
- 48 percent is classified as “low risk,” land where zoning allows only farms or ranches, limits building on hillsides or where development is blocked by urban growth boundaries.
- Another 18 percent is urban.
- And the remaining 7 percent is open land “at risk” of development in the next 30 years. Of that, about 1 percent is “high risk,” meaning development could occur in the next 10 years.
New homes are currently under construction along Wallis Ranch Drive at the Wallis Ranch housing development in the Tassajara Valley of Dublin, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. Undeveloped lands are still under the threat of urban sprawl according to the Greenbelt Alliance. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group)
Areas in the highest risk category include cattle ranches outside Brentwood, Antioch and Oakley in Contra Costa County; the Coyote Valley in South San Jose; and the Cargill salt ponds in Redwood City, where a developer has proposed building 12,000 houses in a project that faces stiff opposition.
Development groups say that building rules have become too strict overall and have led to some of the highest housing prices in the nation.
“One of the byproducts is the housing shortage,” said Lisa Vorderbrueggen, a spokeswoman for the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area, based in Walnut Creek. “We’re not advocating paving over parks, but there has to be a better balance.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, city leaders around the Bay Area regularly approved filling large sections of San Francisco Bay for developments like Foster City. They paved tens of thousands of acres of orchards for massive subdivisions and built freeways through ranchlands.
But in the last two generations, parks and open space advocates have held the upper hand, winning nearly every major development battle.
In 1989, the first year the Greenbelt Alliance conducted its five-year report, it classified 781,100 acres as “at risk,” a number that has fallen by 63 percent today. That drop didn’t come because most of the land was paved over. The amount of urban land in the Bay Area grew by only 7 percent since 1989, according to the Greenbelt Alliance’s reports.
Rather, there was a huge expansion in the size and number of parks and open space preserves. Since 1989, the amount of permanently protected land in the Bay Area grew by 68 percent — nearly half a million acres — to the current 1.2 million acres.
“One of the big things that makes the Bay area special is that this is a place where you can go to work and be up in the hills in 30 minutes to be hiking in some place that feels truly wild,” said Madsen. “It’s a quality-of-life issue. We have the opportunity to be on the coast, and in redwood forests, and places that feel nonurban right in our backyard.”
Voters have repeatedly passed parks bonds, parks taxes and other tools at the ballot, often with the endorsement of business groups like the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
In November, voters approved a $12 parcel tax for all nine Bay Area counties to raise $500 million to buy wetlands and fund flood control work around the shoreline of San Francisco Bay. Two years earlier, 71 percent of voters in Alameda and Contra Costa counties approved a $500 million bond measure for the East Bay Regional Park District, and voters by a similar majority approved $300 million in bonds for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and a $24 annual parcel tax for the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority.
Increasingly, open space groups are now agreeing with development groups that more apartments and condominiums need to be built within city limits.
But many cities, from Walnut Creek to Palo Alto, have seen dense, in-fill development plans die over “not in my backyard” neighborhood opposition. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown floated a plan to streamline approvals for developers who built housing within existing city limits. But it died after environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council opposed it as a rollback of CEQA, the law that requires environmental impact statements of traffic, air pollution, noise and other concerns. And union groups such as the California Labor Federation that wanted prevailing wage, or union wages, required on such projects also opposed it.
“The state needs to basically tell communities you are going to have to give up some of your local control for the greater good,” said Vorderbrueggen of the building industry association. “Otherwise, more people are going to be driving two hours to work each way so they can find a house they can afford, and people’s kids and grandkids won’t be able to afford to live here.”
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This article was originally published by The Mercury News.