CA: Rural San Mateo County Activists — And Others Around Bay Area — Oppose Transit Development Plans

March 9, 2012
Citizens in San Mateo County's rural midcoast are pushing back against Plan Bay Area, a state-mandated effort to figure out where the region's growing population will live — and they're not alone.

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Citizens in San Mateo County's rural midcoast are pushing back against Plan Bay Area, a state-mandated effort to figure out where the region's growing population will live — and they're not alone.

Organizations and community activists throughout the Bay Area are faulting the plan, which intends to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by creating incentives for transit-oriented development. A number of environmental groups have joined the fray, and even Occupy and Tea Party activists have found common cause in opposing the ambitious project, which reaches an important milestone Friday with the unveiling of a new land-use vision.

The complaints are as diverse as the people issuing them. They include concerns about a lack of transparency and community engagement on the part of the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the organizations implementing the plan. There is also criticism of the agencies' economic and demographic forecasts and questions about whether the plan will achieve its emissions-reduction goals.

Plan Bay Area stems from SB 375, a 2008 bill that requires each of the state's metropolitan areas to craft a Sustainable Communities Strategy mapping out where new housing will be built to accommodate population growth through 2040. ABAG and the MTC on Friday will release a draft of the plan that incorporates a year's worth of feedback from local governments.

On the midcoast, local leaders are worried about San Mateo County's application to designate the unincorporated communities of Miramar, El Granada, Princeton, Moss Beach and Montara as a priority development area. That would make the stretch of coast eligible for some of $250 million under the One Bay Area Grant program, a proposed system of distributing federal transportation money. Opponents say the remote area is wholly unsuited for the kind of urban-infill, transit-oriented development envisioned in Plan Bay Area. Their skepticism is shared by the Greenbelt Alliance, Committee for Green Foothills and all three Bay Area chapters of the Sierra Club.

"It just doesn't make sense to put a priority development area in our community," said midcoast community organizer Sabrina Brennan. "We don't have the jobs, infrastructure and transit to support it. We're like a tourism area with farming and fishing."

The Association of Bay Area Governments says the concerns are unfounded. Ken Kirkey, planning director for ABAG, said rural priority development areas, whether they're in the midcoast or Guerneville in Sonoma County, will not be expected to undergo dramatic growth. The focus in these areas will be on "connectivity" — improving bicycle and pedestrian access, for instance.

"It's not about transit-oriented development, it's not about significant infill," Kirkey said. "It's more about areas that are already developed, however modestly, that typically without better planning are going to see less pedestrian friendly, more sprawling development."

Accountability and outreach

San Mateo County officials say their growth targets are modest -- 25 percent by 2040. And ABAG says it has no power to enforce the targets in any priority development area. Deputy county planner Steve Monowitz said the application for the midcoast was mostly a means to ensure the county doesn't miss out on much-needed federal grants.

"You want to be eligible to receive those funds," Monowitz said. "There's just general concern (among those on the midcoast) that there will be strings attached."

There's also concern about public outreach. The midcoast application was placed on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors' consent calendar Jan. 24, and the supervisors discussed the matter only after citizens in the audience requested it. For midcoast residents, the incident gave credence to critics, particularly Occupy and Tea Party adherents, who say the Plan Bay Area process has not been inclusive or democratic.

"Their job is to inform the public, and they're doing a miserable job," said Heather Gass, a Contra Costa County realtor who is affiliated with the Tea Party. She is worried about a loss of local control and foresees regional clusters of "stack-and-pack" housing near transit centers.

"Unelected bureaucrats" -- her term for regional planners — "are basically planning where 9 million people will live in the future, and I think that that's wrong," said Gass. "They say there's a choice. But the choice is high-density housing or you don't get your money."

ABAG insists that's not the case, defining its role as coordinating the plans of local jurisdictions, building on existing land-use programs, but not telling them what to do. Kirkey said the economic downturn has led to a distrust in government, which may account for some of the angst the process has generated in both left-wing and right-wing activists.

"I think while the name Plan Bay Area might suggest something coming down from on high," said Kirkey, "if you look at the various draft scenarios, local community input is integral, particularly given the emphasis on locally nominated priority development areas."

Unsure projections

Perhaps the weightiest critiques of Plan Bay Area have to do with projections. ABAG and MTC planners have reduced their forecasts of jobs and population growth since 2011, but they remain unrealistically high, according to the Contra Costa Transportation Authority and the city of Palo Alto.

Plan Bay Area's most recent projections show the Bay Area adding 1.1 million jobs to its 2010 total of 3.4 million by 2040, with its population increasing from 7.2 million to 9.3 million. The Contra Costa Transportation Authority has called the estimates "at the high end of remotely plausible outcomes." And even with those projections, the land-use element of the Sustainable Communities Strategy likely won't do much to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, leaving planners to cobble together transportation projects to reach a California Air Resources Board target of 15 percent.

"They're on very shaky ground," said Palo Alto City Councilman Greg Schmid, an economist and demographics researcher who claims ABAG and the MTC have been relying on outdated state forecasts. Palo Alto's distrust of Plan Bay Area's methodology led the city last month to oppose designating El Camino Real and the downtown as priority development areas.

Kirkey has heard the critiques of the projections and said the estimates in Friday's new document, dubbed the draft preferred scenario, will be downgraded slightly. "We're going to take an approach that I think is well-informed," he noted, "and errs on the conservative side."

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357.

Copyright 2012 - San Mateo County Times, Calif.