Bay Area rebellion attacks housing mandate

April 13, 2012

By Dave Roberts

The Mouse that Roared,” a 1950s satirical novel and movie about a tiny European country that declares war on the United States, has come to life in the Bay Area. Corte Madera, a town of 9,200 people tucked away in the Marin countryside, has rebelled against the Association of Bay Area Governments over California’s housing mandates.

Corte Madera’s three square miles of land is pretty much built out with nearly 3,800 households, two schools (with a third on the way), two shopping malls and a town park that hosts the annual Fourth of July festivities. The small town is known as “the hidden jewel of Marin” — and that’s the way the residents want to keep it.

They feel like they’ve done their part to meet the state’s affordable housing mandates. They won national awards for a 79-unit affordable development built in 2008. And they recently rezoned an industrial site, in the process losing jobs and tax revenue, to accommodate a 180-unit development. The projects allowed the community to meet its state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation requirement of 244 additional units.

But residents weren’t happy about it.

“It’s a lot of [new] housing in a community of 9,200 people,” said Mayor Bob Ravasio in a recent KSFO radio interview. “As we were going through the final process on this, a lot of people in town made it very, very clear that they were extremely upset. Rightfully so. We are 9,200 people; we are three square miles; we are built out. And we are rezoning an industrial site in order to get the housing built.”

But while there was a lot of anger and grumbling, it’s what happened next that led to rebellion.

“We got information … that they wanted us to add another 700 units and 49 percent more jobs by 2040,” said Ravasio. “And we all hit the roof.”

The Corte Madera Town Council studied the consequences of withdrawing in protest from ABAG, which oversees the housing mandate for nine counties and 101 towns and cities. They learned that it would prevent them from applying for government grants administered through ABAG. But that would not be a big loss.

“We went back the last 10 years and saw one government grant we received for about $60,000 for a bicycle path improvement,” said Ravasio.

“We had to spend a fortune on consultants to comply with the conditions of the grant.”


The other downside to withdrawing from ABAG, he said, “is you lose a seat at the table when you’re discussing things like the Regional Housing Needs Allocation. We went back through history, and we found that we really hadn’t been listened to in the past and didn’t have a seat at the table anyway.”

So, with little to lose, on March 6 the town council voted 4-1 to pull out of ABAG. The town will save $2,350 in annual dues, but it will still be required to abide by state housing mandates controlled by ABAG. As a result, their action may prove to be little more than sticking their heads out the window and shouting, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Those who spoke at the council meeting strongly backed that message, with many chanting the mantra of “local control.” One man expressed disdain over what he viewed as capitalism and socialism descending into fascism by ABAG. A woman referred to attendees as “fellow abolitionists.” Many were from surrounding communities who said they hope their towns join Corte Madera’s rebellion.

Other mayors have asked Ravasio to speak to their councils. He intends to do so after his council prepares a report next month on the logistics of forming an ABAG-type organization for Marin communities, similar to the Mendocino Council of Governments.

“You need to have something like this in order to be able to deal with the state and get control of your own Regional Housing Needs Allocation requirements,” he said.

In what may be a case of the squeaky wheel getting the grease, Corte Madera’s housing requirement was recently reduced to 270 additional units by 2040 — the largest decrease among Marin towns. Two others, Novato and Larkspur, also had their requirements significantly reduced, while most other towns saw big increases — some like Sausalito and Ross more than doubled.

This resulted in grumbling from those who got stuck with the increased housing in the latest growth plan.

“What apparently happened was radical shifting of the housing and jobs from those that complained to those that didn’t (some of whom as a result are now ready to complain), regardless of the sophisticated modeling methodologies employed,” observed the Marin County Council of Mayors and Council Members. “Is this plan really a genuine effort to recommend the most rational plan, or just an effort to disperse the discontent as evenly as possible?”

New numbers

ABAG responded that the earlier numbers were based on unrealistic estimates, and the revised numbers are based upon “comprehensive forecasting methodology.” It takes into account such factors as the town’s proximity to employment corridors and transit, real estate market conditions and development potential. “Political considerations regarding ‘discontent’ were not used as a long term factor” ABAG’s response states.

ABAG Senior Communications Officer Kathleen Cha acknowledged in an interview that “there definitely are those frustrations relating to the housing numbers, and we understand that. In the end, all of this is a plan and it’s a vision for what can happen. In the end it has to come back to the local government. How that zoning changes or how they come up with it rests back on them. It’s not like everybody has to have this kind of density. It’s ‘look, these are what the needs are — how can you meet them in your community and where could it be?’ That will have to be determined by the local jurisdiction. It’s not dictated by ABAG.”

But a lot of cities are feeling like they’re being dictated to. Last month, Palo Alto sent a 20-page complaint letter to ABAG, arguing that the jobs and housing requirements are unrealistic, not accounting for market constraints, high costs and the impacts of intensive development. City officials also believe that the plan will have a negligible impact on greenhouse gas emissions in any case.

It’s those emissions that are the driving force behind the discontent. ABAG and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission are implementing the One Bay Area Plan, which is designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 7 percent by 2020 and by 15 percent by 2035. It’s authorized by SB 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008, and AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

The goal is to supposedly save the planet. But many local officials and residents fear it’s actually a case of politicians and bureaucrats destroying their villages in order to save them.

“For us this is about local control,” said Ravasio. “We are a small town. We want to remain a small town, which is why people moved here in the first place. We should be allowed to do that and control growth and grow in a way that makes sense for us. And not have it mandated to us by the state or a regional authority like ABAG. Which is what’s been happening, Which is why we took this step.”

It remains to be seen whether the roar from this mouse echoes throughout the Bay Area and eventually the rest of the state. If it does, it could be the first rebel yell in a new Civil War. Or perhaps it should be called the War of Sacramento Aggression.

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