Setting Expectations – Strawberry PDA Details

Since last summer, County Supervisors have been at odds with community groups in Strawberry over the County’s designation of Strawberry as a Priority Development Area (PDA) under Plan Bay Area.  The Supervisors (none of whom live in Strawberry) and PDA advocates see PDA status as purely an opportune vehicle to secure transportation funding that carries little or no direct downside or long-term risk, and have characterized community groups as ill-informed or needlessly fearful.  The Strawberry Community Association (SCA), representing hundreds of Strawberry residents who have signed our petition to be removed from PDA status, along with other community groups in Marin, believes that county officials understate the risk that being designated a PDA poses to the very nature of our community.  For reasons both immediate and tangible, and long-term and uncertain, we wish to have our community removed from the PDA designation for which it was “volunteered” by the County.  This paper is intended to explain why.

Plan Bay Area is a long-term (25-year) San Francisco Bay Area growth plan created by two regional agencies – ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) and MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) – to manage growth throughout the Bay Area, with a focus on providing high-density, transit-oriented housing.  Its basic strategy is to concentrate the great majority of new housing and jobs in urban areas close to transit.  A fundamental tool of Plan Bay Area is the Priority Development Area, a designation for areas close to transit lines and considered suitable for high-density housing.  Overall, Plan Bay Area expects that 80% of new housing built over the next 25 years will be located in PDAs. Marin County previously had several PDA’s proposed, but those in TamAlmonte, Marinwood and San Rafael Civic Center have since been rescinded.

There are some points that are not in dispute:

Designation as a PDA is voluntary at the local level
There are no legal requirements for a county or city to create PDAs, nor is ABAG forcing communities to apply.  They are entirely voluntary at the local government level.  In the case of Strawberry, that is the Marin County Board of Supervisors.

The County Board of Supervisors is free to rescind any PDA designation
Last year the residents of Marinwood and TamAlmonte protested their designation as PDAs.  The Executive Director of ABAG, in a July 2, 2013 letter to the Board, said that the Board “can, at any time, modify or eliminate all or part of the Potential Highway 101 PDA.”

PDA’S receive priority for transportation-related funding
The PDA designation qualifies communities to compete for a pool of transportation project funding with only other PDA areas, providing additional funding opportunities for those neighborhoods.  The PDA designation does not currently explicitly mandate development in exchange for transportation project funding.

County funding requirements can be met without Strawberry’s PDA designation
MTC requires that counties allocate at least 50% of their One Bay Area Grants (OBAG) to projects in areas designated as PDAs when the grant is approved.  Even if Strawberry’s PDA designation is removed and the funding for currently proposed Strawberry projects maintained, nearly 60% of the OBAG grants will be for PDA approved projects.

PDA designation does not change zoning
The PDA designation does not affect zoning, which only gets changed by approval of the Board of Supervisors (as was done in October when the Board of Supervisors approved zoning changes for the affordable housing overlay that allows 30 units per acre throughout the county).

There is really one key issue in dispute:

Considering ALL the factors, should we expect status as a PDA to lead to aggressive high-density development in Strawberry?

PDA advocates, including Strawberry’s District 3 Supervisor Kate Sears, argue that we should not.  They point out that:

1) there are no explicit, legally enforceable development requirements attached to the transportation funding expected to come with the PDA designation

2) any development proposals will still be subject to the normal land use review process, and that CEQA analysis of environmental impacts will be part of that review

3) the PDA designation is clear in what it does and does not do

While SCA acknowledges that the PDA enables additional funding and does not affect the Supervisors’ ability to change zoning, the PDA carries a great deal more baggage that provides adequate reason to reject this voluntary designation.

Let’s consider the points above:

1) Expectations and Incentives

While the quid pro quo of aggressive development may not be an explicit, mandated obligation, it is a fundamental assumption and goal of Plan Bay Area, including benchmarks to evaluate meeting targets.  The position that PDA funding doesn’t lead to aggressive housing development is essentially exploiting what is currently a loophole, and is contrary to the spirit and intent of Plan Bay Area.  It is an attempt to get a “free lunch” that we will have to pay for in the long run.

Plan Bay Area itself makes the connection between PDAs , funding and concentrated growth explicit:

The OneBayArea Grant (OBAG) program is a new funding approach that better integrates the region’s transportation funding program with SB 375 and the land use pattern outlined in Chapter 3. The OBAG program rewards jurisdictions that focus housing growth in Priority Development Areas (PDAs) through their planning and zoning policies, and actual production of housing units.

ABAG’s 2014 application form for PDA designation explains that one of the characteristics of a qualifying PDA is that “the area has plans for a significant increase in housing units to a minimum density of the selected place type from the Station Area Planning Manual…”  The Station Area Planning Manual specifies that new units in a Transit Neighborhood (as Strawberry is now designated) are expected to be developed at a minimum density of 20-50 units per acre, well above the prevailing density in Strawberry.

Recognition of a linkage between PDA status and intensified pressure for high-density development is often portrayed by PDA advocates as a hysterical construct of uninformed residents.  In fact, the same essential position was taken by San Rafael Council members in rescinding the Civic Center PDA designation, where Mayor Gary Phillips and Kate Colin recognized that the PDA sets an expectation for development.

“The reality of the Planned Development Area is, at the end of the day, it doesn’t set an obligation but it sets an expectation.  If we retain it or change it, we’re saying we expect additional growth here, and it will be something we continue to do.”

The Strawberry community has no desire to foster expectation for the high-density development proposed throughout Plan Bay Area.  That pattern of development is inconsistent with the Strawberry Community Plan, approved by the Board of Supervisors, which advocates a balance of single family homes in a community that is currently >60% multi-family units, an unsustainable balance to pursue in the name of “sustainable communities.”

In addition to the OBAG funds distributed by TAM for conventional transportation-related improvements on public roads in PDAs, other types of financial assistance are being provided by ABAG and MTC to cities, counties and private developers for use exclusively in PDA’s.

These incentives include pre-development and planning loans and financial assistance, and even acquisition loans intended to enable assembling multiple parcels into larger single projects.

Loans – The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is disbursing a $10 million fund through a public/private venture called “Transportation Oriented Affordable Housing” to developers for use in projects in PDA’s (and ONLY in PDA’s).  This taxpayer money will be used to make loans to developers for site acquisition, pre-development, and construction.  Loans issued so far have been to residential and mixed-use projects from 64 to 172 units.

Grants – There are many grant possibilities for PDA-based development in order to “assist” local agencies in seeing that development expectations for PDA are in fact achieved.  Just a few include:

– The MTC “Smart Growth Technical Assistance Program,” intended to “support discrete planning projects that will advance implementation of PDA-related plans.” In particular, the program is aimed at PDA’s that “call for creative forward-thinking solutions for addressing typical impediments to the development of successful TOD.”  (Transit Oriented Developments)

– ABAG is soliciting applications for PDA planning grants intended to promote high-density TOD projects.  Applicants are admonished that “the statement of need [for additional housing] shall NOT be limited by estimates of what seems feasible.”  (Emphasis added)

It should be noted that these are the parties (MTC and ABAG), along with TAM and the County of Marin, that conceived and funded the recently released Larkspur plan that calls for 920 new residential units near the Larkspur Landing center.

These incentives reduce the friction of developing in PDAs, making them more attractive targets for development.

2) Streamlined Approvals Process
PDA advocates assert that we can continue to rely on the kind of careful, detailed analysis that CEQA has historically provided in order to identify (and require mitigation of) significant environmental impacts of proposed new projects in the Strawberry PDA. This is not the opinion of the senior responsible County official.

Brian Crawford, director of Marin County’s Community Development Agency is on record that the 2008 legislation that initiated the whole Plan Bay Area process (SB 375) “contains provisions for streamlining the CEQA process for projects that are located within PDA’s and are consistent with Plan Bay Area.” (See Marin Independent Journal, May 24, 2013)

While a PDA designation doesn’t in and of itself streamline or exempt projects from CEQA evaluation, the conditions for CEQA streamlining in SB375 are virtually identical to a PDA definition: a project “consistent with a Sustainable Communities Strategy” (e.g., Plan Bay Area), within ½ mile of a major transit artery, with less than 15 minutes between transit at peak traffic hours.  In fact, it appears that, in the case of Strawberry, the PDA designation will be the last brick that qualifies housing projects for CEQA streamlining.  Additionally, more recent state laws aimed at fostering “Transit Priority Projects” in “infill opportunity zones,” closely modeled on SB375, both streamline and completely exempt high density residential and commercial projects from CEQA evaluation.

3) PDA Uncertainty

Uncertain General Long-term PDA Risk
The PDA and Plan Bay Area are recently created instruments.  The long-term implications of volunteering for this multi-decade experiment are not yet known.  It is uncertain what other laws like SB375 (that specifically and directly affect PDAs) may be passed by the State Legislature in the future.  This would be signing up for an unnecessary, unknown and largely unknowable high level of risk without a clear and obvious incentive.  Strawberry residents fear the cumulative effect of the “Iron Triangle” of the State Legislature, powerful regional planning groups (ABAG, MTC), and developer interests on a community “volunteering for aggressive growth.”

Uncertain Strawberry-specific PDA Risk
Unlike the San Rafael Civic Center, where a known plan was evaluated against the pros and cons of the PDA designation, there is no plan in Strawberry – at least, one has not been communicated to its residents.   There is little information about what is expected in a Strawberry PDA, and what little information we have is contradictory.

– The TAM “Investment Strategy for Plan Bay Area” document of July 2013 includes only one sentence regarding Strawberry, merely describing the presence of retail and northbound transit.

– The maps of the Strawberry PDA from the original Plan Bay Area documents, the TAM July 2013 document above, and the TOAH PDA funding website all show different outlines of the PDA-designated area.

– None of these maps accurately reflect the ½ mile travel distance from the US 101 transit artery.  They include areas that are in reality over one mile in walking or driving distance to the Seminary Bus Stop at Highway 101.

The Strawberry community believes that we are not misinformed, but rather, well informed and appropriately wary.  We believe the PDA advocates’ position that Strawberry could be designated one of four Priority Development Areas in the county, receive transportation funds, and not be the successful target of high-density housing developer interest is at best naïve and at worst – if Supervisors are actually in support of high density housing while attempting to calm the community – disingenuous.

To Strawberry residents, the Supervisors’ continued refusal to remove Strawberry’s PDA designation suggests that we are being unnecessarily volunteered, against the will of a significant element of the community, into a poorly-defined, high-risk program that sets expectations for (and fosters) an unnatural level of aggressive housing development in a small area of the County, while compromising both our legal evaluation processes and our moral grounds for objection to that development.

Supervisor Sears recently quoted a small portion of the Strawberry Community Plan at the TAM meeting of January 23, 2014.  We suggest she – and all Supervisors – review it in its entirety, including the expectations for single family housing.  Yes, Strawberry has waited 30 years for the county to provide sidewalks.  Do we really have to sign up to aggressive development to finally get the funding we’re owed?

For these reasons, we call on all Supervisors to respect the voice, and honor the request, of the many hundreds of Strawberry residents who have asked to have any PDA designation immediately removed from our community.