This article was originally published in the October 3, 2014 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Doolan Canyon is so quiet you can almost hear the deer breathing. But just over the ridge in Dublin, the 1,650-acre valley is causing electoral pandemonium.
Measure T on the Nov. 4 ballot puts the future of Doolan before Dublin voters, who will decide whether the city should annex the canyon. A yes vote opens the doors to development; a no vote leaves Doolan outside city boundaries as the last bit of open space between Dublin and Livermore.
The measure has sharply divided the Alameda County suburb, which until recently was one of the Bay Area’s most developer-friendly enclaves. Since the 1970s, Dublin has grown from 14,000 to 50,000, due largely to its good schools, central location at the crossroads of Interstates 580 and 680, and generally pro-growth government. It was one of the last East Bay cities to adopt an urban growth limit, and one of the few still allowing sprawl-type development.
“We have approved a lot of developments, but I think we’ve reached our limits. We need boundaries,” said Dublin Vice Mayor Don Biddle. “We’ve had limited opposition to development plans in the past, but not like this. This is different.”
Doolan Canyon is one of a handful of places in the Bay Area where building single-family homes in open space — also known as suburban sprawl — is still under consideration, according to the Greenbelt Alliance. Other sprawl hot spots include eastern Contra Costa County around Brentwood, the open space between Dixon and Vacaville in Solano County, Tassajara Valley outside San Ramon, and the area between Morgan Hill and Gilroy in southern Santa Clara County. Most other cities have adopted strict urban growth limits and are focusing their development on infill.
Biddle and his colleagues on the City Council voted unanimously in June to exclude Doolan Canyon from the city’s urban growth limit, leaving it as unincorporated agricultural open space. The move came amid proposals from a developer, Danville-based Pacific Union Land Co., to build a 2,000-unit senior housing complex in the canyon. Staff at Pacific Union did not return phone calls, nor did a Doolan Canyon property owner who’s supporting Measure T.
Councilman Abe Gupta said it was an easy decision, even with the city’s long history of approving new developments.
“We’re always expanding and expanding. But there is literally almost no open space left,” he said. “We thought, let’s pause. We’re in a drought, we have transportation issues, we have a lot of young families with kids. They need some breathing room, not just a few token parks.”
But over the summer, a former mayor, the developer and others gathered signatures to overturn the council’s decision. Measure T directs the city to annex the canyon and pursue development plans, keeping 60 percent of the canyon as open space and protecting the creek and ridgetops.
Janet Lockhart, who served as mayor until 2008 and supports Measure T, said the issue is not whether to build homes in Doolan Canyon, but whether to forever ban that possibility. Future residents should be able to choose whether to develop the canyon, she said.
“Should a project come forward that people in the community want, they should be able to decide that,” she said. “We need to preserve Dublin’s right to decide its own future.”
Another concern, she said, is Livermore. If Dublin decides to leave Doolan Canyon alone, that does not stop Livermore from annexing the canyon and permitting vineyards, homes, casinos, malls or other projects recently OKd by Dublin’s neighbor to the east. Livermore would then reap the tax benefits but Dublin would endure the consequences — increased traffic and less open space, she said.
Livermore officials have said they have no intention of annexing Doolan Canyon.
Donations to the Yes on Measure T campaign top $160,000, nearly all of it from a group called Dublin Community Partnership, which has the same address as Pacific Union Development Co. Dublin Community Partnership has spent most of that money on signature-gatherers and a Sacramento law firm that specializes in campaigns.
Doolan Canyon is at the end of a dead-end road, tucked in the dry, rolling foothills north of I-580. Over one ridge is a still-under-construction Dublin subdivision, and over the eastern ridge are Livermore vineyards. The East Bay Regional Park District owns the open space to the north. The canyon is secluded and quiet, with a dry creekbed along the bottom and a few ancient oak trees.
Laura Mercier, director of the Tri-Valley Conservancy, said the desire for open space has been slow to come to Dublin, but it’s gathering momentum. Pleasanton and Livermore years ago started enacting stricter open-space laws, and she thinks Dublin will follow suit. Eventually, she hopes to see a continuous swath of open space from Mount Diablo to Mount Hamilton.
“This is important land, and I think people are starting to realize that,” she said. “There’s been so much development here, but I don’t think it’s a losing battle. We’ve made a lot of progress.”