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Tassajara Valley according to Tom Koch

Roz Rogoff

In November I interviewed Sid Corrie about his cemetery project in Tassajara Valley. I said I would interview Tom Koch about the New Farm project next. Koch had just been granted permission by County Supervisors to submit an EIR. Even though that seemed like a good story, I wanted to wait and see what would happen next.

Koch just submitted a rationale for a zoning change, which Save Mount Diablo and the Greenbelt Alliance oppose. This process is now underway, so I decided now was the time to meet with Tom Koch for an interview about the New Farm development.

Tom Koch and I met at the Starbuck’s next to Whole Foods, oops we meant Peet’s, (yes we agreed to meet at Starbuck’s, but both showed up at Peet’s).

Koch considers his plan for Tassajara Valley innovative, unique, and the best plan to keep as much of the Valley’s undeveloped land open space and agriculture. The plan is for 771 acres with 177 luxury homes on one acre lots, and 10 affordable apartments for farm workers in the northern portion of the property.

The upper end of the flag-shaped section includes plans for a staging area off of Finley Road with new trails to Mount Diablo. Koch feels this is the missing link in the trail system and doesn’t know why it isn’t more appreciated by Seth Adams of Save Mount Diablo and other environmentalists who have complained about the need for a staging area at the base of the mountain.

Most of the homes in the plan would be clustered along the southern edges of the properties, with the San Ramon portion hugging Camino Tassajara and the Danville portion between Blackhawk and Alamo Creek. Houses would be on one acre lots without boundaries, so the yards of each would merge into the adjacent property, making a contiguous open space between the homes.

Portions of the development provide land for a cemetery and church, both of which are in short supply in this part of Contra Costa County. The church’s denomination hasn’t been determined yet. The cemetery would be much smaller than the one planned by Sid Corrie just south of the New Farm property. Koch said it is 100′ up a hill away from the homes and won’t be visible from Camino Tassajara.

Tom Koch was the Project Manager for Shapell’s portion of Dougherty Valley. The County has been accused of not planning it well and allowing many more homes than San Ramon would have. Koch said San Ramon originally agreed to 11,000 homes.

I pointed out that the City reduced the 11,000 homes to 8,500, but Koch believes that was just for political reasons. Voters passed Ordinance 197 sponsored by Jim Blickenstaff and Greg Carr, which made it “impossible to build anything out there.”

Ordinance 197 has very strict rules protecting ridgelines, creeks, and wildlife habitat. The County’s building ordinances, even outside their Urban Limit Line in Tassajara Valley, are very lenient about protecting hills. I described them as, “Be nice to hills.”

Koch chuckled and said that’s why Shapell went with the County’s more lenient building codes in Dougherty Valley. “That cost San Ramon over $100,000,000 in permitting fees.”

Koch said the 2010 General Plan didn’t include much of Ordinance 197. Measure W would have revived all of it. I asked if that would have made a difference in his New Farm plans, and he said “No. We’re avoiding wetlands and doing a little grading.”

Koch is confident County Supervisors will approve his request for a new land use designation of Rural Mixed Use. Portions of the plan are P-1, which is already in the County’s General Plan, and the existing zoning in Tassajara Valley is AG-80 or 80 acre for farming, but allows clustering equal to one unit for five acres.

Lawyers for the Greenbelt Alliance and Save Mount Diablo claim New Farm is in violation of Contra Costa County’s General Plan. The General Plan states that, “properties outside the ULL may not obtain General Plan Amendments that would re-designate them for an urban land use.”

The legal opinion by Winter King of Shute, Mihaly, and Weinberger, claims that the plan is urban because the density is greater than one unit per five acres, and it would require extension of outside sewer and water services. King also claims the plan violates the required 65/35 land preservation percent approved by voters in Measure C-1990.

This legal opinion is based mostly on the original 2007 New Farm proposal. County Supervisors had some reservations about the plan in 2007 but voted 4 to 1 (Susan Bonilla dissenting) to allow Koch to move forward with it.

Koch contributed $3350 to John Goia’s reelection campaign last year. He’s friends with Goia but has also supported Federal Glover, Gail Ulkema, Mary Piepho, and even Susan Bonilla, who voted against him but was replaced on the Board of Supervisors last year by Karen Mitchoff.

On December 19, 2010 Nadia Costa of the law firm of Miller, Starr, Regalia submitted a 55 page report outlining “New Farm’s consistency with County’s General Plan Goals, Policies, and Implementation Measures.” This was followed by another package on December 20, 2010 “Re: New Farm’s Consistency with the County’s ULL Policies and General Plan.” If sheer number of pages determined the decision, Koch’s lawyers would win.

According Nadia Costa New Farm is not in violation of Contra Costa County’s General Plan, Measure C-1990, or ordinances for building outside the Urban Limit Line, it is just package differently. The amount of open space surrounding the homes combined with the land set aside for agriculture meet the 65/35 Land Preservation Standard.

Senior Planner Patrick Roche wrote in an email to me last year, “The P-1 District enables the applicant to request that the County tailor certain zoning regulations and standards to the specific circumstances associated with the project, as opposed to applying the conventional regulations and standards under the existing zoning district.”

On the other hand in her report to Seth Adams of Save Mount Diablo and Melissa Hippard of the Greenbelt Alliance, Winter King advised, “Should the County approve the Project in its current form, a petitioner would be able to present a strong argument that the approval violates state and local law.” So there’s already one law suit on deck whatever the County Supervisors decide.

King brought up the need for outside services for sewer and water for Tassajara Valley. Rumors were circulating that if Measure W passed, the sewage would go to the Larwin Pump Station in South San Ramon.

Not so say Koch. There are three different options in the plans recently submitted to the County. One would have the sewage flow by gravity to Dublin San Ramon Services District (DSRSD), which is where the Dougherty Valley sewage should have gone, but that was blocked by Pleasanton because the treatment plant is in Pleasanton.

DSRSD has made considerable improvements to the treatment plant, but even if Pleasanton agreed to allow effluent from Tassajara Valley down to DSRSD, Alameda County said it would not accept any sewage from Contra Costa County.

Another option would build pumping stations in Tassajara Valley to send effluent north to Central Contra Costa Sanitary District. Koch’s preferred option is for installing septic tanks at each home with a local processing plant to discharge the treated waste into the olive groves. He likes this option best because it is the cheapest, and it would not bring in an outside service which could be considered urbanization.

I told Koch I ran for Director of DSRSD and opposed providing water to Tassajara Valley. Koch told me, “DSRSD will not seek to annex property in Tassajara Valley without a vote of the people. However, they have a public obligation to wheel water if they have available capacity.”

Koch has negotiated to purchase 595 acre feet of water from Fresno. According to Koch this is almost three times the estimated need to cover shortages, droughts, or other unforeseen events. This water would be “wheeled” through DSRSD’s existing infrastructure to Tassajara Valley. Once it is there, the water would be distributed through a private water company.

The 10 unit apartment building next to Tassajara View Elementary School is probably the most “urban” element of New Farm. Koch says it meets state requirements for affordable, workforce housing for the farm workers who will tend the olive orchards. He has a density bonus from the state and State law trumps County code.

Koch has also offered to enlarge the parking lot of the school, but says it is up to the school district which school or schools would be used for children of new residents in the development. Koch said that the Danville Town Council supports New Farm because they see it as a buffer to more development.

That’s probably true, but Blackhawk and Alamo Creek are already buffers between Danville and Tassajara Valley. Alamo Creek is only 1/3 built out. So there will be a lot more development coming on Danville’s eastern boundaries.

You can find most of the documentation on New Farm on Contra Costa County’s website. Koch told me New Farm will be posting its own website in about one month. He expects the EIR process to take one year or more.

Koch was relaxed and friendly with me so I asked him why some people think he’s Satan. He laughed and said the campaign against Measure F in Brentwood was full of lies. Brentwood has the right to set its urban growth boundary and needs to raise money to fix roads and schools.

“I’m proud of what I do,” he said. “If there’s no market for this housing (New Farm), we’re not going to build it.”

This article was originally published in the San Ramon Express.

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