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IJ Article: Marin County adopts plan to permit thousands of homes

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

By RICHARD HALSTEAD | | Marin Independent Journal PUBLISHED: January 25, 2023 at 5:18 p.m. | UPDATED: January 25, 2023 at 6:00 p.m. Link to article

Marin County supervisors have approved zoning changes to allow 5,197 new residences on 148 sites in unincorporated areas by 2030. The zoning changes are contained in an updated version of the countywide plan’s housing element, which the Board of Supervisors adopted Tuesday following a seven-hour public meeting. The county is facing a state mandate to accommodate 3,569 more dwellings over the next eight years. The housing element contains more sites than required to meet the state mandate in case some residences don’t materialize. Nearly 1,300 of the homes could result from a state density bonus law that allows developers to exceed zoning limits if a certain number of their project’s dwellings are affordable to low-income residents. The supervisors approved the element without the support of the Marin County Planning Commission. “On Jan. 5, the Planning Commission met and recommended that the board not adopt the draft housing element,” Leelee Thomas, deputy director of the Marin County Community Development Agency, told supervisors. “The role of the Planning Commission is to address planning issues,” Thomas said. “However, the need for housing is more than a planning issue. You are balancing different needs and issues as well as planning issues.” Supervisors held no discussion about the list of reservations the Planning Commission sent them. The housing element assigns a certain number of dwellings to each site, and in the case of 38 of the sites specifies a quantity of acreage available for upzoning. That amount of development may occur anywhere on the site. For example, a developer seeking to build a project on the St. Vincent’s School for Boys site in San Rafael would have the option of building 20 dwellings per acre on 34 acres of the parcel for a total of 680 residences. The developer would have the option to build additional homes on the remainder of the parcel, but they would have to use the existing zoning, which allows far fewer dwellings per acre. Under state law, areas designated for affordable housing must be zoned for a minimum density of 20 dwellings per acre, but the housing element changes the zoning to a minimum density of 30 dwellings per acre on some parcels. This potential for even more development than planned for in the housing element was one of the concerns expressed by the Planning Commission. The commission also objected to the removal of density limits in baylands and ridge and upland greenbelt corridors. All of the housing element sites will be developable with ministerial review, which means they will not be subject to the California Environmental Quality Act or review by local elected bodies. The only requirement developers will face, beyond very basic safety and environmental regulations, is conformance with a new “form-based” code, also adopted by supervisors on Tuesday. The form-based code won’t limit the number of residences that can be built on parcels. However, it will, in some cases, require developers to place their residences in smaller buildings, instead of one or more massive structures. Developers will be able to circumvent the code if they can demonstrate that compliance with the objective design standards contained in the regulations would render their projects financially infeasible. The supervisors also approved an environmental impact report (EIR) prepared for the list of housing sites and a new safety element for the countywide plan linked to the housing element. The EIR, however, looked only at the cumulative impacts of developing all of the sites and did not delve into the specific limitations of any particular site. The EIR identified 15 impacts that are significant and unavoidable, including negative effects on air quality; greenhouse gas emissions; transportation; visual character; water supply and wastewater treatment; noise; and tribal resources. The EIR included two project alternatives that would have reduced the impacts. One alternative would have reduced air pollution by cutting the number of vehicle miles traveled. The other would have addressed the impacts on water and wastewater treatment in the districts of service providers that lack the ability to accommodate the amount of development proposed. The supervisors were able to legally certify the EIR without adopting either alternative, however, by making a “statement of overriding considerations.” A number of the public comments at Tuesday’s meeting came from people associated with the Miller Creek School District in San Rafael. They objected to the fact that the EIR found the impact on schools to be less than significant. Becky Rosales, superintendent of the Miller Creek district, said “a reasonable person would agree” that an influx of hundreds of students from new housing would represent a significant impact. The EIR determined that cumulatively the housing proposed would add more than 1,000 new students to Marin schools. Rosales estimates that her district would absorb about a quarter of that number. She said developers would be required to pay fees that would cover only about 10% of the cost for districts to absorb the students. Public commenters also questioned why neither the EIR nor the safety element required any meaningful adjustments in the housing element to ensure that residents will be able to safely evacuate in case of a wildfire. A countywide fire evacuation study in the works won’t be completed until next year. Fire risk is one of the chief concerns of Lucas Valley for Responsible Growth, a group formed recently in reaction the housing element. Susan Morgan, one of the group’s organizers, said Tuesday that 270 people have signed her group’s petition stating that Lucas Valley can safely accommodate the 164 residences at three sites contained in the housing element and no more. The group is concerned that developers will make use of the density bonus to exceed that number. Sharon Rushton, who heads Sustainable TamAlmonte, said, “Planning for the flawed, unrealistic and unnecessary number of housing units mandated by the state does not override or outweigh public health and safety and preserving Marin’s treasured environment and wildlife.” Rushton said the housing element actually exceeds the state Department of Housing and Community Development’s requests. Planning staff, however, said that state housing law requires the county to do more than allow the number of homes assigned to it. “One of the biggest changes in this cycle’s housing element is the requirement that we affirmatively further fair housing,” said Liz Darby, social equity programs and policy coordinator for the Marin County Community Development Agency. “We must take deliberate action,” Darby said, “to explicitly address and combat and relieve disparities resulting from past and current patterns of segregation and to foster and proactively encourage more inclusive communities.” A number of public commenters expressed their support the housing element. Many of them mentioned they are members of a church or synagogue as well as the Marin Organizing Committee. “My faith tradition teaches that the test of any public policy or action is whether it adds to or detracts from the common good,” said Jeff Bialik, a committee volunteer. “The housing element is a path to meeting our housing needs. Clearly that is the common good.” But Terrie Harris-Green, a member of the Marin City Community Services District board, objected to Marin City being asked to accept any additional housing. “The decisions being proposed are steeped in blatant systemic and structural racism,” Harris-Green said. “Marin City must be deemed exempt and taken out of this housing element altogether.”

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