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North Livermore Plans for Homes and Farms, But Initiative Looms

The City of Livermore and Alameda County are close to completing a specific plan that provides for the development of 3,200 acres and the conservation of 10,300 acres of farmland and open space. However, a Sierra Club-backed urban growth boundary initiative that appears headed for the Alameda County ballot in November could throw the project into question. The city and county are in the midst of conducting approximately 17 workshops and public hearings on the North Livermore Specific Plan. City and county planners say the plan provides for 12,500 much-needed housing units in job-rich eastern Alameda County.

Fees from development of those homes will provide about $50 million to fund rural land acquisitions and open space easements, which would preclude additional development on neighboring hillsides. The specific plan marks the cooperation of the city and county, which fought each other in court over development in the area during the mid-1990s (see CP&DR, September 1994). However, if voters in November approve the urban growth boundary initiative, for which the Sierra Club submitted signatures in mid-May, the North Livermore Specific Plan could effectively be invalidated. It is uncertain whether Livermore and Alameda County can both complete specific plan adoption prior to the November 7 election.

The Sierra Club has come out against the plan because of the development's affects on traffic, air quality and quality of life. On the opposite side is the 90-member Tri-Valley Business Council. The organization has not taken a formal stance on the specific plan because it is still reviewing details, but the group does back development in North Livermore, Council President Tom O'Malley said. The Livermore general plan calls for development in North Livermore, and the area needs more homes for current and future workers, he said.

In 1993, Livermore adopted the North Livermore general plan amendment, which called for dwelling units to accommodate about 30,000 people in an area north of I-580. At about the same time, Alameda County was approving the East County Area Plan, which had alternatives for up to 60,000 people in a broader area. Landowners sued the city, and the city sued the county. All sides settled in 1995 when the city and county agreed to a joint planning process overseen by a committee of two city planners, two county planners and one landowners' representative.

"It's an amazing group," said Joe Runco of SWA Group, the specific plan's lead planner and urban designer. "It's remarkable that a project like this could even get this far."

Planners first conducted an open space feasibility study, which concluded that a density bonus program and development fees could result in permanent protection of vast tracts of rural areas in northeastern Alameda County. Planners then melded the earlier city and county plans, which called for similar housing production, urban growth boundaries and local-serving commercial development, said Chris Bazar, an Alameda County senior planner.

Volume I of the resulting specific plan addresses the 10,300 rural acres, all but 425 of which will remain unincorporated. The plan creates a 1,550-acre rural management/agricultural enhancement area that would serve as a transition zone north of the urban area. Agriculture, large-lot residential development, limited tourist commercial uses and golf courses would be among the allowable uses. In the hills west of the urban area lie 1,675 acres that would provide wildlife habitat and open space. Just over half of the project area, 7,100 acres north and west of the urban area, would be designated for large-lot agriculture and habitat protection. Volume II addresses the 3,200-acre urban area. The 12,500 residential units would be built in densities of 0.2 units to 35 units per acre, with no more than 3,000 units being constructed in a five-year period. The plan calls for 700,000 square feet of commercial development, about two-thirds of which would lie in a "village core."

Also included are 22 neighborhood parks, 90 acres of community parkland and eight schools.

The plan is an attempt to interconnect the various pieces of the overall development, SWA's Runco said. There are more than 100 landowners in the specific plan area, including about 40 in the proposed urban area. Balancing homes and jobs The plan does contain some New Urbanist components. A fairly tight street grid is in the plan. An extensive trail system is planned, and 30% to 40% of residences will be within a 10-minute walk of the village core, which is intended to serve locals. Nearly all residences will be within a half-mile of an elementary school. However, there will be little employment within the new urban area, and planners concede the development will be heavily auto-dependent. That is not encouraging for motorists stuck on the already congested I-580 freeway that links the East Bay with bedroom communities in San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, or the even more crowded I-680 freeway, which ties the East Bay to Silicon Valley.

Traffic is a major concern of the Sierra Club, which notes that the EIR lists significant, unavoidable impacts from the North Livermore project.

Mike Daley, conservation coordinator for the Sierra Club's Bay Chapter, said that what is planned as a new town in North Livermore is unwarranted. Under the initiative, cities would be required to grow within urban growth boundaries, and the county would be out of the development business, he said. For the North Livermore project to go forward, Livermore would first have to receive Local Agency Formation Commission approval to annex the area, he said. The initiative would leave adequate room for growth around cities, said Daley, who pointed to infrastructure problems faced by proposed developments.

"We're not saying housing and development cannot occur in these areas," he said. Furthermore, the initiative tightens requirements for affordable housing on all projects of at least 20 units, he added.

But the Tri-Valley Business Council's O'Malley said the North Livermore development probably should be even denser than proposed, even though its average of 6.2 units per acre is roughly double the rest of Livermore. Smart growth criteria mandate dense housing, he said. "I think this could be a pilot project to show how high-density could be done in fine fashion," said O'Malley. He said that planners have been stunned to hear anyone arguing for more density in the Tri-Valley area, which is characterized by large tracts of single-family homes and low-rise industrial parks. The area needs more middle-class housing, O'Malley said. Workers are already forced to commute from Tracy and Modesto, and every indication is that industrial growth is moving east from Pleasanton to Livermore, he said.

"We have to do more to start providing housing for our work force," O'Malley said.

City officials would agree with that statement. With North Livermore built out, Livermore will have an estimated 1.29 jobs per housing unit, said Will Kettler, an associate planner for the city. Without the development, that ratio goes to 1.7 jobs per home, which is higher than the city wants, he said.

The county's Bazar said the plan is remarkable for its protection of more than 10,000 acres of rural land. A development fee of $25,000 per acre will go to a land trust for purchasing property and easements � which is the cornerstone of the specific plan's resource conservation program. Besides protecting and enhancing natural resources, the fee also prevents area landowners from getting divided into haves and have-nots. That's especially important because planners essentially drew a line at May Road to divide the urban area and the lightly developed transition zone. There is no obvious topographic break.

Market studies suggest the $25,000 fee will not sink the project, Bazar said. "I think we're really setting a pretty strong precedent here," he said. 

The plan is the first to consider urban versus non-urban uses for a wide area of the East Bay, and to draw a line between the two, said SWA's Runco. "I can't think of another single development project where developing the urban area protects the rural area at a ratio of four to one," Runco said.

Both the Livermore City Council and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors must approve the specific plan. The planning commissions for each jurisdiction are scheduled to make recommendations this summer, but no dates have been set yet for the elected bodies to consider the plan. Comments on the draft environmental impact report were due June 2, although planning commissioners were considering extending the deadline.

Contacts:

Chris Bazar, Alameda County Planning Department, (510) 670-5400.
Will Kettler, Livermore Planning Division, (510) 373-5200.
Tom O'Malley, Tri-Valley Business Council, (925) 890-1892.
Mike Daley, Sierra Club Bay Chapter, (510) 848-0800.
Joe Runco, SWA Group, (415) 332-5100.