Shrinking Contra Costa Growth Boundary Sets Off cities and Builders
It goes without saying that in land-use planning, as in most other aspects of governance, where you stand depends on where you sit. One person's sprawl is another person's prosperity; one jurisdiction's responsible stewardship of resources is another jurisdiction's lost opportunity for economic development.
When you get this kind of conflict in California land-use planning, usually you wind up in court — simply because there is no other forum for appeal. And so it is not surprising that the City of Brentwood has decided to sue Contra Costa County over the Board of Supervisors' July decision to "shrink" the county's urban limit line by 14,000 acres. A split San Ramon City Council has since voted to join Brentwood's lawsuit, and the City of Antioch and some of the affected landowners might jump aboard as well.
The ensuing battle is likely to be a typical one in many ways, with jurisdictions and landowners battling on many fronts at once — at the county, at the cities, in the courts, and probably also at the Contra Costa County Local Agency Formation Commission. Yet it certainly looks like it's going to shape the final urbanization pattern in one of the state's key growth counties, and it may clarify the roles — and the leverage — that cities and counties have in shaping growth.
A little background is in order here. Contra Costa is a large, demographically mixed county of 800,000 people in the East Bay. It includes many upper-middle-class suburbs, such as Walnut Creek and Orinda, but it also contains a long string of old working-class towns along the Bay and Delta, from Richmond to Pittsburg. Job growth along the I-680 corridor in the central part of the county has stimulated a huge demand for residential development. But resistance to growth is high in the areas where business is booming. As a result, a great deal of residential pressure is being bounced into open spaces to the east — into places such as Antioch, Brentwood, and Oakley.
A decade ago, voters in Contra Costa County ordered the county to limit urban growth so that only 35% of the county's land area is developed, while 65% is either set aside or used for rural purposes. Voters also told the county to create an urban limit line to implement this requirement. The county subsequently created the "ULL," but it had wiggle room in it — that is, it specified what areas could and could not be developed, but placed more than 35% of the land area inside the line. The idea was to give the supervisors some room to maneuver in determining which land should be developed.
Then, in the early 1990s, the politics of the Board of Supervisors changed. In particular, a pitched battle ensued over the proposed development of Tassajara Valley, an undeveloped area near San Ramon and Danville, in the vicinity of the I-680 corridor. A new supervisor, Diane Gerber, was elected based on her opposition to the Tassajara proposal and subsequently it was withdrawn. That led Gerber and her political allies to begin working to change the ULL so that Tassajara would lie outside the urban boundary. And it encouraged them to start lobbying the county's Local Agency Formation Commission to honor the ULL, even though the boundary was a policy of the county, not of the cities. The LAFCO eventually adopted a policy of adhering to the line whenever possible unless violating it "compellingly outweighs the public interest in limiting growth to areas within the line." (See CP&DR, April 1999.)
It's a ways from Tassajara Valley to Brentwood — approximately 40 miles — but it was not long before several critical pieces of property in the eastern part of the county came into play in the controversy over the proposed ULL change. It began when Supervisor Joe Canciamilla, a former Pittsburg city councilmember, convened meetings with city officials in the east county to discuss a mutual approach to growth. But in the end, they couldn't agree. In backing the ULL "shrinkage," Canciamilla proposed cutting out several key properties that had been targeted by Antioch and Brentwood for development. Especially in the case of Brentwood, these changes included properties that are currently inside the city's sphere of influence.
None of this has made Canciamilla a popular guy at Brentwood City Hall. Within a week, the Brentwood City Council voted to file a legal challenge to the environmental impact report for the new ULL. Mayor Quentin Kidd claimed that Canciamilla was simply pandering to the West County slow-growth crowd in his race to succeed Assemblyman Tom Torlakson. (Brentwood is not in Torlakson's district; most of Antioch is.) In response, Canciamilla took the high road. "There's a good deal of economic development competition between Brentwood and Antioch," he said. "I have a more regional perspective."
San Ramon's decision to join the lawsuit was led by Mayor Curt Kinney, who happens to be running against Gerber in November. Whatever, the motivations, the ensuing litigation may be pretty sprightly. For example, one of Brentwood's major moves is likely to be an attack on the EIR's analysis of whether future housing will be displaced. While acknowledging possible displacement, the EIR minimized it as a problem; Mayor Kidd responded by saying that the removal of development potential from Brentwood's expansion area imperils the city's ability to meet the affordable housing goals in its housing element. Meanwhile, of course, there remains the question of whether the county's LAFCO will shrink the sphere to conform to the ULL — or deny annexations that violate the ULL even though they are in the sphere.
All of which suggests that it will be a while before the eventual urban form of Contra Costa County is resolved. And, along the way, some interesting legal and political battles may help clarify — or further muddle — the interplay among some of California's most important land-use policy tools.