Downzoning can punish community

Marin Scope August 3–9 1998

One Point of View

Dwayne Hunn

Political decisions at the local level seriously affect the world in which we, and tomorrow’s children, must live. Although Democrats cheered wildly when Presidential Nominee Dukakis alluded to working for the ‘community” as a reason for his success, local Democrats as well as Republicans seldom think in terms of the larger community.

Californians spend 300,000 hours a day stuck in traffic at a cost of $350 million a year. Automobile traffic, especially stop-and-go traffic, is overwhelming our atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen from 280 parts per million in the immediate pre-industrial period to 348 parts per million in 1987, a rise of 24%

Marin’s population has grown 1/2 of 1 percent every year since 1970. Its automobile registration, during the same period, has grown 6 times as fast. Today’s average home sale price in Marin tops $270,000. What do these statistics have to do with local political decisions?

Let’s use a real life example. Recently San Rafael’s General Plan Revision public hearing process ended. Shortly thereafter, at a late June San Rafael City Council Meeting, Council member Thayer moved and the City Council unanimously supported an immediate downzoning of the Spinnaker on the Bay Project.

Neither of the developers, Sidney Hendricks or Dennis Horne, were present nor had they been apprised that this downzoning was under consideration. “Four to five years of work was re-planned in five minutes and $200,000 of our money was wasted,” was how Dennis Horne described the downzoning to medium density (8-15 units per acre). According to Home, the San Rafael Planning Department and Design Review had no serious problems with their design of 18.5 units per acre (506 units) with 15% of those to be affordable units. His disgusted, initial reaction to this decision was to say, “I’m tired of all this jacking around. If the City says we can build 20 palatial estates that’s what we’ll build. No more attempts to provide affordable housing or work with the community. It just wastes our time and money and gets us burned.”

If you are one of those who think all developers are fat cats raping the land, then you don’t realize that after about 7 years in the development business only about two out of five still have the finances to remain in business. What you should also realize is that the few who survive must acquiesce to the ‘planning forces” that publicly control the private land for which so much was paid. The “planning forces” are often composed of legions of NIMBYs (not-in-my-back-yard) or swell-worded environmentalists. Both don’t seem to make the connection between their role in forcing regular folks Into a long distance commute to find an affordable home and the consequent degradation of our atmosphere.

How could this scenario be better handled? The Council could reconsider it’s action based on:

  1. East San Rafael’s pleas for less traffic and more affordable’ housing.

2) The developers desire to build a secure project that benefits more than just the rich

3) Suggestions by Novato Ecumenical Housing to swap the affordable units proposed for Spinnaker on the Bay for in-lieu fees that could have been used to:

  1. Purchase an existing apartment complex(s) in East San Rafael and insure its long term affordability or make it into a coop(s).
  2. Purchase existing condominiums in East San Rafael and use a deferred principal and Interest second trust deed program, as presently implemented by NEH in Novato, to make home ownership available to low Income households.

In-lieu fees equal to 15% of 506 will buy more existing units in East San Rafael than 5–15% of the reduced density of approximately 280 units.

Swapping in-lieu fees for community controlled will provide a means to build “community.” Downzoning, just because it sounds good to a narrow constituency, often punishes the larger community. The more often this goes on in Marin and communities across the United States, the more time we waste behind the wheel. The more time we waste behind the wheel, the more we increase the Greenhouse effect and the less competitive we become in the world.



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