Many Marin County residents who have been going about their lives without focusing on local politics will soon be unpleasantly surprised.
The staff for the Marin County Planning Commission (working with consulting firm MIG under a $1.6 million contra
ct),has been finalizing plans to site 3,569 housing units over the coming eight-year housing cycle. The plan must be approved by mid-January by the Board of Supervisors, or the county faces severe fines and other punishments by the state.
Many residents who are aware of the issue wrongly assume that this plan actually focuses on much needed lower-income housing, which is in short supply.
But the average citizen might not understand the reality that a maze of new state laws and regulations have wrested control from their city or county over safe and responsible planning. Few know that the definition of “low income” for housing purposes in Marin starts at $90,000 per year, that about 40% of development must be at market rate or that the housing will be built by private, for-profit developers.
Additionally, at first glance it’s not obvious that many sites with dense housing allocations are in floodplains and marshland subject to sea rise, high fire hazard zones, areas with little or no evacuation egress, potential for earthquake liquefaction, landslides and sinking.
On Dec. 12, staffers met with the Planning Commission in what was intended to be a meeting to finalize the proposed housing plan. Instead, six hours of intense dialogue ensued, with the commissioners voicing major concerns about serious and hazardous flaws.
Why are we in this mess? Many politicians in the state Legislature have championed laws that fly under the radar as pro-affordable housing but have near total disregard for various aspects of responsible planning. Many of these laws are promoted by well-funded lobbying efforts from industry groups including “Big Real Estate” and “Big Tech,”concerned about housing for their relatively well-paid employees.
Here in Marin, I applaud our commissioners for courageously making clear in the meeting the stark risks Marin faces from the huge state housing mandates. Our Planning Commission is an incredibly engaged body that knows their job is to protect the health and safety of Marin, as well as approve responsible growth to expand the opportunities for lower and middle-income families to live here.
Unfortunately, the planning staff appears to be cowed by the demands of the state and seems to believe that responsible planning must be sacrificed. Their own environmental impact report states that the plan will create“significant unavoidable impacts” in many areas including air quality, water supply, wastewater infrastructure, noise and transportation. They have glossed over the dangers of obstructing safe evacuation in many of the listed sites.
At the meeting, Commissioner Chris Desser objected to the fact that the commission hadn’t been given a clearer picture earlier in the process. Commissioner Rebecca Lind was rightfully concerned over staffs’ ideas for making development easier when she ruefully remarked “We are basically giving away the store.” The commissioners were unanimous in expressing extreme dissatisfaction with the plan.
The California Environmental Quality Act requires public agencies to “look before they leap” and consider the environmental consequences of their discretionary actions. CEQA is intended to inform government decision-makers and the public about the potential environ
mental effects of proposed activities and to prevent significant, avoidable environmental damage. CEQA can be used as a tool of obstruction, but the reason it exists is because California takes environmental impact seriously. Or at least it did.
Localities’ ability to zone and plan for the future of an area is the essence of good stewardship. But the sad truth is that we have been taken over by the state, resulting in planning that isn’t responsible and won’t produce critically needed, truly affordable housing.
We’re lucky to have such a thorough and committed PlanningCommission. It’s unfortunate that their ability, and that of our Board ofSupervisors, has been crippled by the state. But they must not give up.Collectively, the stewards of Marin County must find ways to fight these ill-advised laws through advocacy to state legislators, or in the courts, if necessary.
~ Amy Kalish, of Mill Valley, is director of the activist group found online at CitizenMarin.org.