Many of us have been attending community meetings objecting to high density housing near transit for a year or more - yet we find ourselves facing highly organized, well-funded opponents who have controlled the conversation for years - before we ever showed up. These groups helped usher in designations of many Marin neighborhoods as Priority
Development Areas – hot-spots where 80% of new housing growth is targeted by
Plan Bay Area.
While we learned about neighbors wanting to build kitchen extensions somehow our elected representatives overlooked telling us about their far more radical development plans. Finally when we did show up we found ourselves dismissed as a nuisance as anything from “johnny come latelys” to NIMBYs and racists.
The outcome despite a near 10 to 1 ratio of opponents to proponents is that fast growth and high density is going through in Marin:
- Civic Center is going to be turned into a 5-story Northgate City metropolis. Its "Transit Town Center" PDA designation signals MTC’s target to pack in 7,000 housing units within ½ mile of the SMART train station where there are currently only 1,165 units. (Read this MTC guide to understand PDA designations)
- Marinwood and Lucas Valley face absorbing 546 high density housing units. This has the potential to cause significant impact on schools - it is estimated to place a burden of $4.9m year on local taxpayers if schools are to maintain their quality due to subsidies and tax exemptions provided to low income and affordable housing developers and residents.
- Strawberry and Marin City face similar fates, Marin City’s situation is especially perplexing as high density affordable housing could displace the black population of Marin, many of whom are low income and cannot by definition afford affordable housing
Most of us returned from meetings where opponents outnumbered proponents dumbstruck by how this could have happened – and was continuing to happen. So we started to research - and we followed the money…
Plan Bay Area – Following the ABAG Money
Plan Bay Area and the associated Regional Housing Needs
Assessment (RHNA) are the two major tools being used by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to drive our cities and county to embrace high density housing.
ABAG claims there is no loss of local control, but if the planning numbers aren’t met then city and counties open themselves up to legal liability. Those locations that embrace development via Priority Development Areas receive lucrative transportation and housing grants.
The Ecosystem of Advocacy Groups
Plan Bay Area started its conception years ago in conjunction with a number of housing and transportation advocacy groups. These groups formed strong relationships with ABAG, MTC and have also endeared themselves to counties, cities and businesses.
Here in Marin an organization calling itself the Grassroots Leadership Network was formed, it evolved to become Marin Grassroots. Receiving donations of over $634,116 in 2011, with plush offices located amongst Marin County offices, and employing multiple full time staff it doesn’t quite align with the definitions of Grassroots on Wikipedia.
Like other housing and transportation advocacy groups, Marin Grassroots embedded itself in the committees involved in planning. They showed up early and often while most of us slept unaware of the radical change that was planned for us.
In March 2013 Marin Grassroots along with other housing advocacy groups was paid by MTC to conduct focus groups to capture feedback from minorities and low income residents on their needs (see page 4). A laudable goal, but paying a political organization with a strong agenda to increase high density housing and switch residents from cars to transit was surely unlikely to produce unbiased conclusions.
But these groups weren't treated just as vendors, they are partners of ABAG with Marin Grassroots awarded a $56,000 grant by ABAG.
These groups would attend community meetings, not disclosing their relationships to ABAG and MTC and cheer on ABAG and MTCs Plan Bay Area, holding up signs promoting the plan.
When finally accused of derailing conversations and failing
to disclose that they were funded by taxpayer , ABAG and MTC contributions they
claimed not to have taken a position on Plan Bay Area .
Yet even the most glancing visit to the Marin Grassroots' website proved otherwise
as they strongly advocated not just the enactment of Plan Bay Area, but it’s
most severe variant – the Environment, Equity and Jobs alternative (EEJ) - even going so far as to create a petition
advocating adoption of this alternative .
The EEJ option diverts a further $2.5bn from maintaining and expanding highways
Consider also that these advocacy organizations are non-profits (501(c)(3)s) where donations are not taxable.
Marin County Connections
Marin County through the supervisors has become heavily intertwined with Marin Grassroots. Between 2009 and 2011 the county paid Marin Grassroots $115,000(see item CA-4 (d)(ii)).
The Marin County supervisors are very involved with Grassroots, involving them on committees and attending and supporting their "We are Marin" party.
The Billion Dollar Community Foundations
The other way that these groups raise money is through bequests made typically by wealthy individuals to Community Foundations such as the Marin Community Foundation (MCF) or the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. MCF has assets of $1bn gathered initially through bequests such as Mrs Beryl Buck and subsequent donors many of whom made donations in their wills. It is meant to direct funds to improve the quality of life and diversity for the people of Marin. However of late it has donated $250,000 to Marin Grassroots and $75,000 to Stand Up for Neighborly Novato - both housing and social equity advocacy groups that have supported Plan Bay Area.
Where Does this Leave Us Marinites?
Now we know what’s occurring Marinites can better understand how we got to this fast growth situation. Plan Bay Area was conceived and promoted by a network of political patrons. What we can do about this is vote out officials that let this patronage occur, especially those who supported it:
- Supervisors Steve Kinsey , Katie Rice Judy Arnold voted to make Marin Grassroots Director, Ericka Ericsson , a Marin County Planning Commissioner despite a perceived lack of experience.
- All the Marin County Supervisors are “host sponsors” of Marin Grassroots upcoming “We Are Marin” picnic event at Civic Center Park.
- San Rafael city council candidate and fast growth proponent Greg Brockbank, alongside Marin County Supervisor Kinsey have both regularly attended and shown their support for Marin Grassroots events such as the declaration of the state of emergency where fast growth opponents were labeled a racist lynch mob. Supervisor Kinsey spoke with the Marin Grassroots and Concerned Marinites protest outside the Citizen Marin town hall.
Elected officials need to be on notice that their patronage
and support of these organizations is unacceptable. Voters in Marin should
demonstrate the ramifications of this behavior at the ballot box starting by
voting for Randy Warren in the November San Rafael city council race and
supervisor candidates Carol Brandt and Toni Shroyer. Businesses and individuals can also help offset the imbalance by donating to their campaigns.
Marin needs a major reform - voters need to send a clear message – this political patronage is unacceptable and we do not want Marin overrun by fast growth.
Most, if not all the organizations referenced above have the best of intentions. The author's concern is that funding is occurring that is either not well thought through , and/or not representative of the intentions of those providing the funding. With a more transparent, inclusive process, the author believes a different, superior outcome would have occurred quite different than that proposed by Plan Bay Area and subordinate housing and transportation projects across the region.