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

Gretchen Logue has been watching homes advance on her community in Tassajara Valley for years.

The Antioch housing explosion alone could generate 40,000 more car trips every day, because the new residents—probably some 15,000 people—would have no convenient access to BART or other transit lines. The Tassajara Parks project, meanwhile, would generate at least 1,600 car trips daily, according to the environmental impact documents associated with the project. Logue thinks the impact would measure out closer to 2,300 car trips.

And all those car trips promise to do a number on the environment. Matt Vander Sluis, program director of Greenbelt Alliance, points out that vehicles are the largest source of greenhouse gases in the Bay Area. “So finding ways for people to live close to where they work, or near transit lines, has a significant positive effect on quality of life and greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

According to a study from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Bay Area residents who live and work within half a mile of a bus or train stop are 10 times more likely than the average Bay Area resident to use public transportation.

In addition, the group Next 10, which analyzes the relationship between quality of life, the economy, and the environment in California, has calculated that diverting most of the projected suburban development into infill areas would reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 1.79 million metric tons. That would be about the same as removing 378,000 cars from area roads and streets.

Moreover, local governments have determined that there is plenty of space within existing urban zones to accommodate the region’s expected population growth in the decades ahead. The Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission concluded in a recent report that the projected population growth of the Bay Area over the next 30 years could be entirely sponged up by existing urban areas. The Contra Costa County Planning and Development Department has concluded the same about the county’s own population growth.

And while suburban homeowners can offset emissions by planting trees on their property to absorb and store carbon, Vander Sluis notes that leaving open space as is generates an overall net benefit to the environment. “When we pave over natural and agricultural land, we’re ultimately causing more emissions while losing the resources that help sequester carbon from the atmosphere,” he said.

When a developer proposes to build on a piece of land, the project usually gets ushered through the laborious codes and processes of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. If county officials identify possible environmental impacts, CEQA law requires that they prescribe mitigation efforts. Often, a developer who proposes to cut down adult trees will be asked to plant a few baby trees or sprout and disperse some acorns. Other times, trees left standing will be formally protected and designated as carbon sponges, the idea being they will now pick up the slack for the trees that fall to chainsaws.

But some environmentalists argue that the California  Environmental Quality Act  often fails to soften the impacts of suburban sprawl. “You just can’t mitigate for destroying a place like this,” said Amorosa, as he looked east from Empire Mine Road, across the property that could become The Ranch,  at the Sierra Nevada, distantly visible through the haze.  “You lose all this forever if you build it up. There’s no way around it.”

In his lifetime, he has seen three bobcats out here, along with golden and bald eagles. He hopes one day to see one of Mount Diablo’s mountain lions, which are probably outnumbered by humans on the order of roughly a million to one. Beyond the region’s more charismatic megafauna, there are hundreds of other plant and animal species that occupy this valuable real estate.

The Nature Conservancy has identified the Bay Area as one of the nation’s top hotspots of dwindling biodiversity. This status comes for two reasons—rapid development and the fact that the region has so much to lose in the first place. A unique local geography of cold oceanfront dunes, inland waterways, fog-soaked mountains, oak woodland, the temperature moderating effects of the bay and delta, and rain shadows create numerous microclimates and ecological niches that, in turn, support a high density of species, some of which are endemic—meaning they live nowhere else.

Photo by Alastair Bland

Dublin has been ground zero for sprawl in the East Bay.

Environmentalists worry  that many of these plants and  animals will be swept aside by developers. Dick Schneider,  an Oakland volunteer with the San Francisco Bay Chapter  of the Sierra Club, believes species like the Alameda whipsnake, the California red-legged frog, the California tiger salamander, the burrowing owl, and the San Joaquin kit fox will eventually vanish from the region.

Schneider has helped introduce about 10 development- related ballot initiatives in the past 16 years, including that which established Dublin’s current urban limit line. Voters, he said, almost always choose to stop development of open space.

However, humanity’s encroachment may never stop. “The state’s population is growing by a million people every three years,” he said. “A large fraction of these new residents are settling in the Bay Area.  Under this kind of population onslaught, it’s unlikely we can save all these species. I can’t help but be pessimistic.”

But Supervisor Andersen believes there is immeasurable value in leaving unbuilt real estate alone. “It’s the open space that provides people in the Bay Area with quality of life,” Andersen said. “It’s the wildlife—lots of coyotes, mountain lions, beautiful birds.”

Thorpe pointed out that developers purchased their land with the understanding that they would be able to develop it. Stopping proposed projects—especially those that would be within existing urban limit lines, like the Antioch proposals—would mean reimbursing the landowners. It would be expensive, but Thorpe said there should be room for negotiations. “There may be options to revert some of this land back to an agriculture zoning,” Thorpe said.

People like Amorosa hope that the Bay Area wakes up before it’s too late and stops paving over open space so that projects like The Ranch never get built.

“We don’t need to keep building houses on land that’s been like it is for millions of years,” he said. 


This report appears in the June edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.


Published online on June 12, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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