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Planning for Reality: How to Rig the Community Input Process

Plans are meant to incorporate community input - the experience in San Rafael made remarkable leaps of logic - arriving at a pre-ordained outcome of a future that had already been decided before us.

I never used to pay any attention to local politics - I was too busy with my family, job and the busy day to day and trusted our elected officials and taxpayer paid employees of public agencies to do the right thing. But in August last year I had a sobering awakening into how our future gets chosen for us - and it doesn't matter if or when you show up. Public input was carefully controlled, and input that diverged from the desired outcome was somehow conveniently disregarded. Now with Plan Bay Area the stakes are much higher - a "mega-plan" will see regional agencies MTC and ABAG place significant pressure on target areas -Primary Development Areas (PDAs) - to plan for very high numbers of new residents which must be housed in high density housing near transit.

Our local planners and elected officials must respond to this need with plans - plans that should align with the communities they represent - but how can this work if trust has broken down? How can we buy into a plan if we cannot even trust the local process that executes on the plan to respect community input?  The MTC $528,000 Contract with the City of San Rafael Back in May 2010 Mayor Boro (since replaced by Mayor Phillips), Barbara Heller (still a serving councilor) and Greg Brockbank (now running to get back onto city council) entered into a remarkable committment with the Metropolitan Transportatation Commission. A contract was prepared by and ushered through by Linda Jackson, a former planner for the City of San Rafael who now works for TAM. You can read the binding contract here. But here's a summary: - the city received $528,000 for the purpose of conducting community planning workshops for the two areas around SMART stations in downtown San Rafael and Civic Center - at the top of page 19 the contract states that "RECIPIENT shall...maximize housing potential"

- finally the contract requires a specific deliverable 12b that the San Rafael council must adopt [vote to accept] the plan or payments will be withheld Had I known all this when I had attend a city council meeting along with over 200 other residents voicing concern that the plan did not reflect our input, I perhaps wouldn't have been so surprised that the council voted 5-0 unanimously to accept the plan. Concerns Met with Appeasement

Time and time again members of the community have since been dismissed by officials with "why did you all show up so late to the process, if only you'd voiced your opinion earlier". Well many of us did - and still we were ignored. Even to this day we're told "don't worry - there are many additional steps requiring public input that will occur before anything gets built". After our experience you can imagine the extraordinary reassurance this provides.

The Public Input - and the Magically Transformed Output  Early on in the planning process visioning sessions were conducted to capture public input, here is a summary of the visioning comments relating to housing that you can find documented in the final plan on pages 221-224. Group 1: “No need for higher density housing” Group 2: “Surrounding neighborhoods to be left as they are” Group 3: “Development should be mixed use with ground floor neighborhood serving retail (15’ high ceilings) with residential uses on top.  No more than 2-stories for a total height limit of about 35 feet.” Group 4: “Housing along Merrydale Rd. (mixed use with graduated heights - highest at Hwy 101, tapering down to two stories near San Rafael Meadows neighborhood.)” Group 5: “Higher density housing, mixed use at storage facility.  Housing at Northgate.  Housing along Las Gallinas north of Chevy’s.” Group 6: “Four stories is out of character with existing neighborhood.  Buildings should not detract form view of civic center." In the subsequent Draft Vision Statement it says, "Buildings are not so tall they block the view of the hills and the new buildings compliment the existing homes and natural areas." (pg. 251) It goes on to say, "Using this vision as a guiding principal, in June 2011 the Project Team solicited feedback the Advisory Committee land use that could be considered within the study area". This mini-team was headed by Linda Jackson, the lead project manager.  Now it must also be remembered that the city's own General Plan states that the area in question has a maximum housing capacity of only 620 additional units.  So what did the mini team come back with? Alternative 1 Alternative 2 1,414 dwelling units 865 dwelling units If you're looking for alternative 3 that actually reflected the public input - there wasn't one! So somehow the community input went from allowing a moderate amount of additional housing units of height consistent with the neighborhood, to extensive 5 story high density housing.  In my line of work heads would roll if someone tried to pull trick like that and got found out.  Getting Back to Plan Bay Area Plan Bay Area uses a carrot and stick approach - just like the awarding of $528,000 to San Rafael for planning - of awarding transportation and housing funding to cities that plan for very high numbers of additional housing units.  Now if Plan Bay Area goes through the very same processes will be used far more extensively to secure public input and validation of high density housing plans, perform zoning reviews and change cities general plans.  How Do We Put This Right? Eliminate the North San Rafael PDA

What ultimately needs to happen is either acknowledgement that the Civic Center Station Area Plan was flawed and should be disregarded, or the San Rafael city council should unwind the damage done by making the area a target for development by making it a "Primary Development Area" - which is where Plan Bay Area concentrates new housing. In effect by making Terra Linda a PDA it will be transformed from a suburban neighborhood and "urbanized". We also need to ensure we don't repeat what occurred before. We need to be wary of the officials who got us into this situation and we need to demand more accountability and transparency. In summation as Sir Roger Daltrey of the Who so rightly put it - "won't get fooled again".

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Tina McMillan May 13, 2013 at 05:38 PM
Jimmy Sustainable planning must occur at all levels. It starts with accurate data and addresses the very real need of each jurisdiction to look at how they will support a new influx of residents. In central and southern Marin we are looking at communities that have been talking desalinization for years because water is becoming increasingly scarce. While Novato gets water from Sonoma County they too are building far more housing than resources and will have to provide water for their residents first. The concept of living sustainably is more than just another word for green. It means having a balanced budget, providing city services, supporting local public schools, retaining the quality of living that comes from having homes that are part of nature rather than separate from it. Putting the poor into infill development is not an answer to homelessness. It promotes segregation. Novato is as much a rural community as it is a suburban one. If you live her long enough you will discover that most people that settled here did so because they have modest incomes and wanted a place to start small businesses, raise families and grow old. Novato has 20% of Marin's population and 33% of its affordable housing. In addition to housing that is deemed affordable we also have a range of market rate housing that is the least expensive in the county. Local is not a bad word in Novato. It means living responsibly and making sound planning decisions.
Eleanor Sluis May 13, 2013 at 07:21 PM
Increasing the number of cars is the reality, which the Sierra Club, Green Alliance, Economic Organizations, and business groups do not address in their fervor to build tacky, tall, 4-5 stories, segregated units on the highway, near the railroads, and at small shopping malls. Smart Train voters said no the first time and yes to the propaganda the second time, which left out the connection to high density and more traffic leading to more not less green house gases. Thanks, Tina and others who are adept at explaining the issues with the master plan for the Bay Area. Thanks to Pat Eklund, who is making a stand to limit traffic in Novato. There is a need for new jobs to create better cars using lower gas emissions. Federal and state funds used for educating students in science and technology, engineering and biosciences help in solving the CO2 emissions. Creating a university for these efforts is a better plan for the future than segregating minority populations. Integrating the minority within the towns with their cars for service use means that a balance is achieved. The point is that each town decides what their budget may handle, and each town decides how to educate its population.
Jimmy Fishbob Geraghty May 13, 2013 at 07:37 PM
Tina, it is hard to reply to every thing you mention, but let's look at water and over consumption of resources in Marin. I agree with you we need to deal with water conservation and stop thinking we can just turn on the facet and let it run, we are dealing with finite resources and we pretend we have a never-ending supply. So, I'll work with you on curbing excess water waste, which means behavioral changes in how we live. As far as schools, the schools being looked at are Basic Aid Districts which means they have more money from property taxes than the state would give them. That is a good thing, they are better off than other districts that get funding from the state. I think there are a few things we agree on and can work to imporve.
Tina McMillan May 13, 2013 at 08:07 PM
No Jimmy. While southern Marin has Basic Aid Districts, Novato is a Low Wealth District. Our taxes don't begin to cover our education costs and never have. In the meantime with 34% of our students being socioeconomically disadvantaged we have test score in the elementary schools showing that we are not making sufficient progress specifically in English Language Arts. These schools and the district are in Program Improvement. The Title I funds that are being received through the Federal government have some schools getting five times the funding but still not raising test scores enough to satisfy NCLB requirements. In a few years NCLB will expire and the attention to the struggles of poor students in schools will no longer be on the front page. That doesn't mean that anything will be resolved or made different. Your cries of NIMBY are bigotry at its worst because you don't even know the specific issues of each community. Having lived in Novato for 30+ years I can tell you that as a community Novato has given every possible advantage to affordable housing developers including 100% of the tax increment generated by the Redevelopment Agencies. This strategy has created a structural deficit as Novato has not been able to maintain a secure property tax base or a secure sales tax base. Our RHNA was reduced when our city council asked ABAG and backed their request with numbers to show what had been done.
Mimi Steel June 24, 2013 at 04:17 PM
The technique that you described for getting to "consensus" is called the Delphi Technique. It is also known as Group Manipulation. The outcomes are carefully controlled by limiting choices to a narrow range of what is acceptable to the planners. It is fundamentally dishonest and the average citizen has no idea that they are being led like sheep to slaughter. All the Plan Bay Area visioning sessions over the past 2 years have been conducted that way. They are required to get public input by law but they really don't want public input unless it aligns with their agenda.

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