Rapidly Growing Contra Costa Considers Tighter Urban Limit Line; New Regional Planning Efforts Stretch From Bay Area to Valley
In the latest chapter in a long-running story, Contra Costa County and many of its cities appear to be ready to tighten up the county's urban limit line. The county is examining the creation of tighter boundaries in the controversial Tassajara Valley area and in fast-growing eastern Contra Costa County. Meanwhile, the county's Local Agency Formation Commission recently adopted a written policy committing itself to honoring the county's urban limit line wherever possible.
Urban limit line tightening comes at a time when Contra Costa officials are engaged in a series of other wide-ranging planning efforts. These include participation in a five-county "Interregional Task Force" with representatives of both the Bay Area and the Central Valley; the initiation of joint planning efforts in the eastern part of the county; and a cooperative effort among the county and representatives of the county's cities to create "quality of life" standards.
Located in San Francisco's East Bay region, Contra Costa County is often viewed as a bellwether of California growth management. The county created the urban limit line in 1990 as part of Measure C, which was placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors as an alternative to a stricter initiative proposed by environmentalists. (The environmentalist alternative failed.) While in support of the urban limit line concept, environmentalists have complained that the county was too generous in drawing it. The proposed change in the line is proof that the Board of Supervisors is "willing to correct the mistakes of the past," said Tom Mooers, the Greenbelt Alliance's East Bay field representative.
The supervisors recently signaled their intention to shrink the urban limit line to exclude 4,000 acres, which encompass almost the entire Tassajara Valley. The revision will also move one ranch near Clayton and another parcel near Brentwood, known as the Veale Tract, outside the urban limit line. However, the supervisors still must decide whether to exclude a 500-acre parcel near Tassajara Valley owned by Shapell Industries, a politically influential developer.
County supervisors recently ordered preparation of an environmental impact report on the proposed limit line change. Dennis Barry, the county's director of community development, estimated the EIR will take 12 to 18 months to prepare.
Contra Costa's shrinking urban limit line appears to be the result of shifting growth politics along the Interstate 680 corridor near Danville and San Ramon. In the early 1990s, county politics was dominated by the Board of Supervisors' approval of the 11,000-home Dougherty Valley project, located just east of I-680. After extensive litigation, that project is now under construction. More recently, controversy has centered on proposals by various developers, including Shapell, to build approximately 5,000 homes in the Tassajara Valley, immediately adjacent to Dougherty Valley. However, the supervisor from the Danville area, Diane Gerber, has opposed development of Tassajara and a large set of development proposals for the area was withdrawn in 1998.
Subsequent to the withdrawal of the Tassajara proposal, Gerber and Millie Greenberg, a member of the Danville City Council, proposed shrinking the urban limit line to exclude all of Tassajara. Their proposal calls for a major "retreat" from the undeveloped hills and valleys east of I-680 and would essentially prohibit development of Tassajara Valley. "I've seen what happened in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, and Orange County," Greenberg said in an interview. "When I moved here 20 years ago, I saw the potential for the same thing to happen here."
At the same time that the supervisors were considering the urban limit line shift, the county's LAFCO — stimulated again by Greenberg, who is LAFCO chair — created a formal policy promising to honor the line.
"The Contra Costa LAFCO has honored the urban limit line. It wasn't a written policy, and it was supplied in a case by case basis. We decided the time had come for the LAFCO to memorialize the policy," Greenberg said.
Greenberg originally proposed a firm LAFCO policy of adhering to the line. But LAFCO's attorneys balked at such an iron-clad policy, saying that because LAFCOs are state-chartered agencies they cannot be bound by local ordinances. Instead, the LAFCO adopted a policy stating that it would "generally" uphold the limit line unless a city or developer makes a case that violating the line "compellingly outweighs the public interest in limiting growth to areas within the urban limit line." "Our attorney said we need to preserve our discretion and flexibility," Greenberg said.
The other pending planning efforts in the Contra Costa area are not as dramatic as the urban limit line issues, but they do appear to be important steps toward stronger planning policies. They include the following:
o Led by Supervisor Joe Canciamilla, officials from eastern Contra Costa County have begun meeting to discuss mutual concerns about urban growth and economic development. Canciamilla is meeting with elected officials from Pittsburg, Antioch, Brentwood, and the newly incorporated city of Oakley. This area has been the fastest-growing part of Contra Costa County and growth has been a major subject of concern. (CP&DR, XXX 1998.)
o Meanwhile, the Contra Costa County Mayors Conference has been working with county officials to draft "quality of life" guidelines to create a set of principles for urban development inside the county's 19 cities. The draft guidelines include such ideas as using sales-tax money to purchase open space as well as provide transportation improvements; creating a countywide hillside development ordinance; and adopting a coordinated policy of permitting growth only in areas where infrastructure to accommodate it already exists. Both city and county officials say that guidelines are important if the county is going to channel future urban growth inside city boundaries.
o And finally, Contra Costa officials are working with officials from four other counties (Alameda, Santa Clara, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus) on problems associated with the imbalance of jobs and housing in the Bay Area and Central Valley. The program, known as the Inter-Regional Partnership, is being coordinated by the Association of Bay Area Governments.
Gary Binger, ABAG's planning director, said the organization is creating a "checklist" of responsible planning practices that local governments in the five counties will fill out so that the Inter-Regional Partnership will be able to document planning practices that may promote or impede a better regional jobs-housing balance.
The Inter-Regional Partnership's board includes one supervisor and two city councilmembers from each of the five counties for a total of 15 members. Greenberg, who is one of the Contra Costa representatives, said she was encouraged by the effort. "The process is more important than the product," she said. "It opens up a line of communication."
Millie Greenberg, Danville City Councilwoman, (925) 837-3231.
Tom Mooers, East Bay field representative, Greenbelt Alliance, (925) 932-7776.
Dennis Barry, director of community development, Contra Costa County, (925) 335-1290.
Gary Binger, planning director, Association of Bay Area Governments, (510) 464-7902.