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Growing Smart

Author: Karen Hart
December, 2013 Issue

Though at times contentious, Plan Bay Area aims to take the guesswork out of future growth.

Look up the definition of “smart growth” online and you’ll find: “Smart growth is an urban planning transportation theory that concentrates growth in compact, walkable urban centers to avoid sprawl. It also advocates compact, transit-oriented, walkable, bicycle-friendly land use, including neighborhood schools, complete streets and mixed-use development with a range of housing choices…Smart growth values long-range regional consequences of sustainability over a short-term focus.”
Earlier this year, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) adopted a regional planofficially known as Plan Bay Area—that aims to chart a course for targeted, focused growth to coincide with where job growth is projected in the Bay Area through 2040. It was the result of a more than three-year effort between cities and counties to develop a sustainable community strategy as required by state law SB 375.
Along the way, it’s had its supporters and critics, and there’s been a lot of confusion about what Plan Bay Area is and is not.

What is Plan Bay Area?

Plan Bay Area, informally dubbed “the Plan,” is an integrated, long-range transportation, land use and housing plan that will support a growing economy, provide more housing and transportation choices and reduce transportation-related pollution. It was put into place to meet the requirements of California’s landmark 2008 Senate Bill 375, which calls on each of the state’s 18 metropolitan areas to develop a Sustainable Communities Strategy to accommodate future population growth and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Plan Bay Area covers nine counties and 101 cities. While a final plan was approved in July, it will be updated every four years (as required by law) to reflect the region’s changing needs and priorities.
The law gives joint responsibility for Plan Bay Area to ABAG and the MTC. These organizations also partner with local communities, agencies such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), and other interest groups to get broad public input.
What’s more, the ABAG Executive Board separately approved a state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) for 2014 through 2022. MTC separately approved the 2013 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), which updates the list of Bay Area projects that receive federal funds, are subject to action, or are considered regionally significant; and also a final Air Quality Conformity Analysis, which establishes that both TIP and Plan Bay Area comply with federal air pollution standards.
RHNA, which is separate from Plan Bay Area, was put into place more than two decades ago, because state law recognizes the important role local governments play in the supply and affordability of housing. Each local government in California, as part of its General Plan, is required to adopt a housing element that shows how it plans to meet the projected housing needs (as defined by the state) of people at all income levels. Plan Bay Area relates to RHNA and often confuses people, says Pat Eklund, mayor of Novato and a member of the ABAG executive board.
By following state-mandated RHNA requirements and working in collaboration with cities and counties, the Plan advances initiatives to expand housing and transportation choices, create healthier communities and build a stronger regional economy. And the good news is: It’s not starting from scratch. The Bay Area has been encouraging more focused and compact growth for decades. The goal of planning officials is to build on this history and place a greater emphasis on the integration of transportation and land-use planning.

Population forecast

Why is it important to have a plan in place that focuses on smart growth? There are about 7 million people living in the Bay Area today. Projecting a healthy regional economy, the Plan anticipates that population will grow to 9 million by 2040. The rate of growth depends on several variables, including job growth, age distribution, projected birth and death rates, and estimated migration into the Bay Area.
“This is the same rate of population growth as the rest of the country,” says Napa County Supervisor Mark Luce, who also serves as president of the ABAG Executive Board and as an MTC commissioner. “So that’s a middle-of-the-road projection. Growth is inevitable. We grow by roughly 1 percent each year. After 30 years, that’s a lot of people. If we don’t plan for it, roads become unbearable, we get multiple families living in homes and people can’t get where they need to go because the roads are so congested. It’s like cardiac arrest. That’s the compression you see when growth isn’t planned. We’re trying to accommodate what we think will happen in a way that makes sense for the region.”
“We have to consider how we’ll accommodate another 2 million people by 2040,” says Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt. “Where will the growth occur? How will it happen? Where will the jobs grow? Planning can be a messy process.
“Some people hate the idea of Plan Bay Area,” he adds.
On the other hand, there’s also the position that growth in the North Bay (particularly in Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties) won’t be as great. “MTC and ABAG are projecting more growth than the California Department of Finance,” says Eklund, who’s been involved in the Plan in a leadership capacity since January 2012. “Marin, Sonoma and Napa do not want to grow to the same degree as San Francisco, Oakland, the East Bay or even the peninsula. Plan Bay Area protects that desire.”
“Most people in Sonoma County believe growth should occur within cities, and [that we should] build higher-density downtown units to prevent sprawl and increase housing options, especially for an aging population,” says Rabbitt.

The strategy

Plan Bay Area provides a strategy for meeting 80 percent of the region’s future housing needs in Priority Development Areas (PDAs). These are locally designated areas within existing communities that have been identified and approved by local cities or counties for future growth and are usually accessible to transit, jobs, shopping and other services. The PDAs range from regional centers such as downtown San Jose to suburban centers such as Walnut Creek’s West Downtown area and smaller town centers such as the Suisun City Waterfront. The Plan funds mixed-income housing production and locally led planning in PDAs.
In the North Bay, there’s one PDA in downtown Napa, according to Luce. In Marin County, there’s a planned PDA in downtown San Rafael that’s still active, but a planned PDA at the Civic Center site was recently removed and in the Urbanized 101 Corridor, two potential PDAs have been removed (Marinwood and Tam Valley). Sonoma County has a number of planned and potential PDAs. Currently, PDAs are slated for downtown Cotati and at the Cotati Depot; Central Petaluma; the Downtown Station Area in Santa Rosa as well as at the Sebastopol Road Corridor (also in Santa Rosa); and in the Redevelopment Area in Windsor. Potential PDAs in Sonoma County include the Downtown and Smart Transit Station in Cloverdale, Sonoma Mountain Village in Rohnert Park, the Mendocino/Santa Rosa Avenue Corridor in Santa Rosa and at the Nexus Area in Sebastopol.
The Plan also facilitates implementation by expanding incentives and opportunities to local jurisdictions to support growth in PDAs. More than 70 local governments have voluntarily designated 170 PDAs, which are proposed to absorb about 80 percent of new housing and more than 60 percent of new jobs—on less than 5 percent of the Bay Area’s land. The result is a locally supported, compact and efficient growth pattern that meets reduction targets and provides sufficient housing for the Bay Area’s growing population.
“Most funding in PDAs will be for infrastructure improvements, like roads,” says Luce. “There’s also a small but important amount of funding for planning and some housing development. These are small amounts relative to the total funding, primarily for transit infrastructure. The Plan lays the ground for private investment and development of housing, but very little housing is funded by the Plan.”
Priority Conservation Areas (PCAs) have also been identified in partnership with land trusts, open space districts, parks and recreation departments, local jurisdictions and property owners to preserve the region’s diverse farming, recreational and resource lands for future generations.
In addition, the transportation element frames how $292 billion in anticipated federal, state and local funds will be spent through 2040. Nearly 87 percent (or $253 billion) will be used to maintain and operate the transportation network already in place. Maintenance and operation of the Bay Area’s current public transit services will receive about 54 percent ($159 billion) of the revenues. The remainder includes 32 percent for street, road, highway and bridge maintenance; 7 percent for transit expansion; and 5 percent for roadway and bridge expansion. A $3.1 billion reserve, comprised of anticipated future funding through the California Air Resources Board’s Cap-and-Trade program for greenhouse gas emissions, accounts for another 1 percent of expected revenue.
“There’s probably not a lot of money for widening roadways and transit expansion,” explains Luce. “Eighty percent of the money is going just to maintain the current infrastructure. It’s not likely that we’ll expand the capacity, but it’s important to give people the opportunity to live closer to their work.”
Though the Plan includes additional housing units in communities, the pace at which they’re built will depend on various factors, including local zoning, the financial feasibility of building the new housing permitted under this zoning, and approval by a city council or board of supervisors.
As part of the Plan, any major transportation, housing or other project included in the Plan must still comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). For example, if a project to add bicycle lanes is listed in the Plan, an environmental review specific to that project is still required under CEQA and will be conducted by the jurisdiction with approval authority over the project. And if the Plan describes new housing units or jobs within a city or county, the actual planning and development enabling any proposed project that might be brought forward to a city or county will fall under a local environmental review and still require local approval. SB 375 provides CEQA streamlining benefits that local jurisdictions can take advantage of as well.

Road bumps along the way

Despite all the planning, there have been various road bumps along the way for Plan Bay Area. First, a number of people and special interest groups are opposed to the Plan. But most of those opposed don’t realize that the Plan is state mandated, says Luce. “People don’t like the state telling local communities what to do. However, the housing needs process [RHNA] has been going on for a couple of decades. This is better than any other plan we’ve had,” he says.
One group that’s opposed to the Plan is local builders and developers concerned that there’s not more open space designated for housing. “For the most part, North Bay housing numbers are way down because of our desire to protect agriculture and open space,” says Luce.
Second, Plan Bay Area is being sued by private parties. “We’re being sued by private attorneys under the premise that we’re violating someone’s civil rights,” says Luce. “We paid $400,000 in legal fees for one lawsuit, and yet we have no choice but to comply with the state’s mandates.”
And finally, there’s the matter of getting communities to reach an agreement. This summer, Eklund made the decision to abstain from voting on behalf of the 11 cities in Marin County because there wasn’t consensus within those communities. “Since I represent the Marin cities on ABAG, I reached out to my colleagues and encouraged them to have public meetings to garner community feedback. I held several meetings with ABAG delegates on the city councils to ascertain how Marin cities should cast our one vote [mine] on the ABAG Board.”
According to Eklund, of the 11 cities, two (Novato and Sausalito) indicated their support for the “Preferred Scenario” (Plan Bay Area), one (Corte Madera) voted for the “No Project Alternative,” and eight (Belvedere, Tiburon, Larkspur, Mill Valley, Ross, San Anselmo, Fairfax and San Rafael) took “No Position,” indicating they wouldn’t take a position for or against any of the alternatives. Since the majority of Marin cities took this stance, Eklund decided it was not her duty to vote for or against Plan Bay Area or the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
Initially, Eklund had mixed feelings about the Plan, but eventually voted to support Plan Bay Area as part of the Novato City Council because most of the designated growth, in terms of jobs and housing, will be south of San Francisco. “The reason is, Silicon Valley is driving the economic growth of the San Francisco Bay Area,” she says. “There won’t be a large amount of growth in the North Bay. The Plan recognizes that we have a large agricultural industry and federal, state and regional parks that provide access to our environment, which is critical.”

A plan still in process

Plan Bay Area is based on the work of hundreds of local planning efforts that have taken place around the Bay Area, but it’s a plan still in process.
“We are, essentially, beginning the next plan now,” says Luce. “Some of the concerns that have been expressed can be incorporated in the next round.”
“We need a timeline. I’m promoting that each city and county vote on the update in four years. This would allow more public involvement, since most cities and counties would need to place that item on their agenda to determine what their vote would be at a general assembly,” says Eklund.
According to Eklund, it’s important for cities and counties to get involved and stay informed. “When I became the ABAG executive board representative for the 11 cities in Marin, I formed a group of council delegates to ABAG so I could inform them and their councils and get their input on different issues and on the Plan. We were able to engage council members in Marin. ABAG is using this as a model to get other cities engaged,” she says.
There’s more work to do in the future. “We’re just at the beginning,” says Eklund. “There are future grants that may focus the attention on what the Plan says. The name ‘Plan Bay Area’ implies that we’re all the same, but the Plan recognizes that every city and every county is different. We have different cultures and different desires for our future. The Plan doesn’t mandate the cities or counties do anything other than what we do in the general plan.”
“As we go forward, I’ll advocate for ABAG and MTC to have open dialogs on what worked well and what needs improvement so we don’t repeat past mistakes,” says Eklund. “Both ABAG and MTC need to find a better way to involve the communities at the local level in updating the Plan due in four years. I’m recommending we start now by working backward from 2017 to ensure adequate time for a bottom-up effort where the public, stakeholder organizations and elected officials are brought into the process early on. I’ll continue to advocate for enough time for each city, town and county to vote.”
Eklund hopes that by changing the process and making improvements, the updated Plan in 2017 will address the issues and concerns of the public and local elected officials and maintain their community values.
“We want to be able to look back and tell our kids we made wise decisions to live in an area that we can be proud of,” says Luce. “That means an efficient means of getting where we want to go, ample housing choices and preservation of our agriculture and open space, particularly in the North Bay.”
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