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Marin County General Plan Embraces Sustainability

Marin County has adopted a new general plan that emphasizes "sustainable communities" and reflects a strong concern about global climate change. Although the Board of Supervisors adopted the Marin Countywide Plan only in November, there is already evidence the plan could serve as a model for other jurisdictions in California and across the country.

Rather than prepare a separate green building element or sustainability chapter, Marin County planners made an overarching environmental ethic the basis for nearly every goal, objective and policy in the plan.

"We opted not to have a sustainability or green chapter, but to have sustainability as an underlying theme throughout the plan," said Marin County Planning Director Alex Hines. "The idea is that it would be a recurring thread throughout the entire document."

According to Hines, the plan is the first local comprehensive plan in the country to calculate the ecological footprint of the average resident and to include extensive measures intended to reduce that footprint. The plan has been an "Internet hit" since before adoption, said Hines. In December, the American Planning Association named Marin County's sustainability program that is the basis for the new general plan as the winner of a national award for excellence in planning implementation.

The planning process in Marin was long seven years from start to finish and included all of the usual "blood and guts" battles over where development should occur, Hines said. In the end, seemingly everyone found something to dislike. Affordable housing advocates said the plan did not offer enough places and policies to encourage homes that poor and working-class people can afford in a county where the median price is about $950,000. Neighborhood activists argued against development in their backyards. Environmentalists decried the amount of commercial development potential. Business interests and landowners complained about what they see as overly burdensome regulation.

But what nearly everyone agreed on is the plan's sustainability theme. In Marin County, people do not dismiss global climate change as an Al Gore-inspired conspiracy, and the "Three Es" of sustainability environment, economy and equality as mere political correctness. (Marin County, after all, is the home of Senator Barbara Boxer.)

Because of this social and political dynamic, Marin County's plan may not be of use everywhere. Larry Mintier, a Sacramento-based general plan consultant, said most cities and counties right now fall into one of two categories: The true believers in sustainability such as Marin County, and the "rest of the world" that simply wants to avoid getting sued over the climate change impacts of their plans.

One problem is that climate change has become a local issue late in the process of many general plan updates, Mintier said. Still, even late in the process, it is not a subject to ignore.

"These days, in terms of environmental review and looking at the obvious considerations in a general plan update, climate change and water are at the top of the list," Mintier said.

What would help planners is coordinated guidance from the Air Resources Board, the attorney general's office and the Governor's Office of Planning and Research, Mintier said. Those agencies need to define sustainability, provide a set of principles for sustainable development, and discuss sustainability in the context of the larger issue of climate change, he recommended.

"Everybody concedes that we're still making this up from month to month because we don't have very much guidance," Mintier said.

In Butte County, sustainability is one of the guiding principles in a effort to update a 30-year-old general plan, said Development Services Director Tim Snellings. "The board [of supervisors] understands it. Everybody understands it to some degree. But we're really just really getting into what sustainability means," Snellings said.

Indeed, sustainability can mean different things to different people. In Marin County, the concept of sustainability clearly means decreasing human kind's negative impact on the local and global environment. But, Hinds emphasized, "It isn't just about people buying Priuses and slapping solar panels on their roofs." Sustainability means making strategic planning choices and encouraging needed, responsible development, he said.

"We took the principles of sustainability and strategic planning, and we combined them," Hinds said. To this end, he added, the countywide plan encourages infill and redevelopment projects that "recolonize the asphalt that take underutilized, unattractive development and create some community gathering places, and transit, and housing next to the transit, and jobs. That's all part of caring about the land. You can't just buy conservation easements."

"Green" mixed-use infill can improve community vitality and decrease the use of fossil fuel, Hinds contended. To this end, the plan calls for 1,700 new housing units within about 15 housing overlay designations and on mixed-use sites. These are basically locations within or near a commercial core area. These infill units amount to nearly half of all additional residential units the plan permits at buildout. If those numbers seem low in a county of 606 square miles (87% of which is unincorporated, and, therefore subject of the countywide plan) and 255,000 people, consider that the county has long directed growth into the 11 incorporated cities.

Three previous general plans all provided some basis for the county's latest plan. The 1973 general plan sliced the county into three north-south corridors a coastal recreation corridor composed primarily of federal parklands, farmland and very small communities, an inland rural corridor composed of farmland and small communities, and a city-centered corridor along Highway 101. The plan essentially shifted potential development away from the coast to the strip of cities along Highway 101 in the eastern part of the county. The 1982 plan identified growth areas around the cities. The 1994 plan added agricultural, park and recreation, and economic elements.

The new plan keeps the three corridors and adds a fourth for areas between Highway 101 and San Pablo Bay. The plan generally discourages development in this baylands corridor because of the desire to enhance wetlands and because of worries about sea level rise.

Although the policies are not entirely new, they were not universally popular because some sites in the corridor have been considered for development. One such site is known as the St. Vincent's and Silveira lands 1,230 acres just north of San Rafael. The property owners for years have discussed extensive housing development. The countywide plan permits development of only a senior care complex on about 30 to 40 acres.

Besides adding the baylands corridor, planners reformatted the new plan into three sections:

The natural systems and agriculture element focuses on biology, water, environmental hazards, atmosphere and climate, open space, agriculture and food.

The built environment element addresses towns and development, design, energy and green building, housing, transportation and public facilities.

The socioeconomic element focuses on the economy, child care, public safety, community participation, education, environmental justice, public health, historical resources, and parks and recreation.

Within these three sections are the seven required general plan elements (conservation, open space, land use, circulation, housing, noise and safety) and five optional elements (agriculture, community facilities, parks and recreation, trails and economic).

The plan calls for assessing greenhouse gas emissions and setting targets to reduce those emissions. The art, said Hinds, is to set benchmarks that are simultaneously aggressive, achievable and flexible. Marin planners included indicators so they and the public could measure how the county is doing. Strict benchmarks, however, could be setting yourself up for failure, warned Hinds, who recommended planners seek legal counsel.

Marin County did not wait for the new general plan to begin implementing a green building program. The program requires new large houses to be ultra-energy efficient and provides incentives for green construction. The larger the development, the more green measures the county requires. Because building codes are dictated by the state, the county enforces its green measures through the discretionary planning process, explained Alec Hoffman, who heads the county's green building program. The result is that the average new residential house in Marin County is 20% more energy efficient that required by California standards.

That matters because the built environment contributes about 44% of Marin County's generation of carbon dioxide, including 17% that comes from the unincorporated area, according to the plan. This is in the context of an "ecological footprint" (the amount of land required to sustain the current lifestyle, including natural areas to absorb carbon dioxide) of 27 acres per capita which is more than the national average of 24 acres, and two to three times the amount of European countries. What is considered "sustainable" worldwide is roughly 4 to 5 acres per capita. In other words, although Marin County residents have a strong environmental bent, they have not been living within their ecological means.

Contacts:
Alex Hinds, Marin County Planning Department, (415) 499-6278.
Larry Mintier, J. Laurence Mintier & Associates, (916) 446-0522.
Tim Snellings, Butte County Department of Development Services, (530) 538-6821.
Marin Countywide Plan: http://www.co.marin.ca.us/depts/CD/main/fm/index.cfm

 

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the Marin Countywide Plan:

Planning sustainable communities is the overarching theme of the Marin Countywide Plan. Marin County government is committed to lead by example, promote public participation, and work in community partnerships to protect the natural systems that support life and improve our quality of life. To design a sustainable future, we the larger Marin community will strive to accomplish the following:

1. Link equity, economy and the environment locally, regionally and globally.

2. Minimize the use of finite resources.

3. Reduce the use and minimize the release of hazardous materials.

4. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

5. Preserve our natural assets.

6. Protect our agricultural assets.

7. Provide efficient and effective transportation.

8. Supply housing affordable to the full range of our members of the workforce and diverse community.

9. Foster businesses that create economic, environmental and social benefits.

10. Educate and prepare our workforce and residents.

11. Cultivate ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic diversity.

12. Support public health, safety and social justice.

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