Dealing with the Sprawl Devil

Thousands of acres of green open space in the East Bay are in danger of being gobbled up by suburban housing tracts.


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Photo by Alastair Bland

Michael Amorosa and Joel Devalcourt have been fighting to stop suburban sprawl.

As of August 2016, more than 7,000 more homes were slated to be built in Dublin, according to the Greenbelt Alliance report. Many of those homes are now under construction as crews of workers lay down cement and asphalt, place foundations and plumbing systems, and unroll sod onto acres of yard space. Many more homes are finished, unoccupied but ready for new occupants to move in. These squeaky-clean neighborhoods are often named for the very  features of the land they replaced: meadows, farms, orchards, vineyards, and olive groves.

Devalcourt, who lives with his family in a small house surrounded by fruit trees and just blocks from a BART station, noted that these neighborhoods of clonelike houses will strand residents miles from the nearest transit hub or grocery store. The northern end of Dublin provides a vivid example around of this kind of development—a traffic-inducing phenomenon that  Devalcourt, who says he bikes and BARTs almost everywhere, calls “sprawl vomit.”

Gretchen Logue has been watching these homes advance on her community for years. The fifth-generation Contra Costa County resident lives in the Tassajara Valley, at the southern base of Mount Diablo. Her home was built five decades ago in a beautiful crease of land that the 21st century seems to have almost left behind.

Almost—for a development company called FT Land has introduced plans to pave over a significant chunk of real estate that has never before felt the footprint of permanent human residence. The project was first introduced in 2007 under the cheery label “New Farm.” It is now billed “Tassajara Parks” and would include 125 homes on 30 acres that are currently zoned for agriculture and are just outside the urban limit line that voters established in 1990 and renewed in 2006.

“We thought when the public voted to create the urban limit line, that meant something,” said Richard Fischer, a co-founder with Logue of the Tassajara Valley Preservation Association.

But for now, the law is on the side of the developers. While land outside the urban limit boundary can only be developed with approval from voters, there is an exception to this rule for projects 30 acres or smaller. Such projects need only a four-fifths approval from the county board of supervisors. They must also offer a public benefit—and to meet that requirement, the developer, Samir F. Kawar, has offered to donate more than 600 acres and $4 million to the East Bay Regional Park District.

Though Tassajara Parks is small compared to developments like The Ranch, opponents warn that it disproportionately threatens open space. “This project would be the first to use the [30-acre] legal loophole that could eventually be used countywide,” Devalcourt explained.

But David Bowlby, spokesman for the project, contends that the domino effect Devalcourt describes will not take place. That, he said in an email, is because Kawar’s land deed will create a “green wall” of public land abutting the current urban limit line. This, according to Bowlby, will make it impossible for any more 30-acre projects like Kawar’s to bulb out of the current urban limit line.

East Bay Regional Park District General Manager Bob Doyle, who has been working on open space issues for about 40 years, also thinks the Kawar deal will create a net gain for the area: with the 600-acre land deed to the park system and the “green wall” that Bowlby described. “It’s not an impermeable green wall, but it would create a strong buffer against more urbanization,” Doyle said.

But Logue feels voters already created such a barrier against more development. “It was always my understanding that the urban limit line was the green wall,” Logue said.

In Antioch, the projects that could result in 4,000 new homes in the Sand Creek Focus  Area would be plainly within  the existing urban limit line.  “Citizens of Antioch overwhelmingly voted to designate this area for building,” said Ross-Swain of Richland Communities. “So, we believe this project fits the vision that the city has for this property.”

Ross-Swain is referring to Measure K, which area voters approved in 2005. However, the ballot language of the initiative, which developers drafted, was arguably misleading and likely created the impression that Measure K would ultimately result in fewer new homes. The Measure K ballot statement read: “A YES vote on Measure ‘K’ REDUCES TRAFFIC, CONTROLS GROWTH AND HELPS OUR SCHOOLS.”

But 12 years later, traffic is getting worse and the East Bay’s peripheral cities keep growing. Thorpe, the mayor pro tem in Antioch, conceded that The Ranch, in its tentative planning stages, actually looks good, with its promoters paying attention to wildlife habitat and maintenance of open space and trail access.

But he said it’s disingenuous for project backers to argue that voters who approved Measure K wanted a landscape covered with suburbs. “Voters absolutely did not approve 4,000 new homes,” he said.

In 1900, the San Francisco Bay Area was a remote  clustering of small towns  with a total population of about 700,000 people. Today, 7.7 million people live here.

In the last seven years alone, 600,000 new residents have settled in the region. Alameda is the fastest growing of Bay Area counties. Here, 120,000 people found elbow room—and in many cases, vast suburban lawns, swimming pools, and multicar garages—between 2010 and 2015. The county is now home to more than 1.6 million people. Contra Costa County’s population jumped from 1 million to almost 1.1 million in the same five-year period. The city and county of San Francisco also grew, from 800,000 people in 2010 to about 870,000 today. But most of this population growth is taking place in suburban areas far from major centers of employment, according to a report released by the California Department of Finance in early May.

The suburban growth is driving traffic congestion to crisis levels as residents commute hours each day to and from work on the Bay Area’s overburdened roadways. Traffic is increasingly cited in polls as one of the top reasons that locals want to leave the area. While many towns and cities combat traffic by improving transit systems and supporting housing projects near bus and train stations, traffic is getting worse—and the housing boom in the remote suburbs is directly reversing progress by introducing tens of thousands more people into communities that can only be easily accessed by automobiles. “Sprawl creates traffic,” Devalcourt noted. “It’s designed to accommodate driving.”

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