January 17, 2017

Urban Growth Boundary after a decade–the Alameda County UGB has limited sprawl, but vigilance still required

by Dick Schneider

Dick, Bay Chapter conservation chair in 2000, took the lead in writing and campaigning for the Growth Boundary, and has continued to watch over its implementation.

Enactment of the Alameda County Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) in November 2000 was perhaps the biggest victory in the history of the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter. After 10 years, how has this landmark law served to keep development out of the open space and agricultural lands of eastern Alameda County?

When Alameda County voters passed the Save Agriculture and Open Space Lands Initiative (Measure D), which created the UGB, the victory belonged to the Sierra Club. Club members conceived of and wrote Measure D, organized the signature-gathering drive to place it on the ballot, and led the campaign for its passage, and the Sierra Club has led and will continue to lead the efforts to make sure the measure is properly carried out.

Back in the late 1990s the technology boom was in high swing, and growth was out of control around the Bay Area. Massive sprawl projects were proposed for eastern Alameda County. One such project was a 12,500-unit subdivision north of I-580 outside of Livermore. This huge project alone would have generated 133,000 new car trips per day on local roads and freeways and destroyed thousands of acres of farmland and habitat. Ranchettes were proposed for Sunol, carving up large agricultural properties (mostly ranches) and open space into parcels too small for economic agriculture, useful only for hobby farmers and mansions.

Faced with these threats, county open-space activists went to work. Over several months at the end of 1999 and early 2000, two dozen people met two or three times a week to design an initiative that would protect the remaining open space. Our goal was to prevent the county from approving urban subdivisions on existing farmland, as well as to maintain the large rural zoning necessary for the economic success of ranching and large-scale agricultural activities.

We also wanted to prevent inappropriate commercial uses outside existing developed areas.

Creating an initiative

The result was Measure D. The initiative created a UGB around the existing Tri-Valley cities of Pleasanton, Dublin, and Livermore. The county may not approve urban development outside the UGB or carve up farmland into parcels smaller than 100 acres. The initiative also extended these protections to the Castro Valley canyonlands, the series of deeply incised valleys between urban Castro Valley on the west and Pleasanton Ridge on the east. These valleys contain fragile soils subject to easy erosion and water-quality deterioration. They are also habitat for numerous rare and endangered species such as the California tiger salamander, Alameda whipsnake, and California red-legged frog.

After writing the initiative, the Club led a major signature-gathering campaign throughout the county. After seven weeks, we submitted 63,000 signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot. Development interests were opposed. The Board of Supervisors too resisted taking away its power to approve urban sprawl. The Board placed a competing measure on the ballot, Measure C, which would have kept the county’s authority intact.

Our campaign in the fall of 2000 had to distinguish the citizens’ initiative from this confusing countermeasure, as well as to overcome massive deceptive advertising by developers who claimed that Measure D would lead to insufficient housing, harm agriculture, close BART, and even eliminate emergency medical services. Fortunately, Measure D had the united backing of all major environmental organizations in the Bay Area as well as the endorsements of prominent, respected politicians. Over 40 elected and appointed officials endorsed Measure D, including now-Gov. Jerry Brown, who was then mayor of Oakland. Equally important, we raised sufficient money to get our message out to voters. A combined total of over $3 million was spent by both sides to educate the voters about the pros and cons of Measure D, the largest expenditure for a local land-use ballot measure in state history.

Measure D won with 57% of the vote. The Board’s countermeasure failed with only 43%. Clearly, the voters distinguished the two, and overwhelmingly approved real open-space protections.

After Measure D passed, though, two sets of developers immediately sued to overturn the initiative. Alameda County was obliged to defend the measure, but the Club was unsure whether the county would mount a vigorous defense. Together with the Golden Gate Audubon Society, Preserve Area Ridgelands Committee, and Greenbelt Alliance, the Sierra Club intervened in the suit (the two developers’ suits were consolidated). We won in both Superior and Appellate Courts, and when the California Supreme Court declined to take the developers’ appeal, Measure D became a precedent for UGB initiatives throughout the state.

Implementation

That started the ongoing task of ensuring that the initiative would be implemented properly. Measure D set forth principles and policies that would need to be applied to specific situations. Latitude existed for discretion and potential abuse. For the most part, the county has faithfully discharged its duties. No new urban developments have been approved outside the UGB, and large agricultural parcels have remained intact. Indeed, thanks to the clear direction established by the initiative, few applications for such large-scale developments have even been submitted.

For individual uses outside the UGB, however, the record is much spottier. The Board of Supervisors has denied some applications, but allowed others. One of the first applications after Measure D passed was a proposal for a large school to be built by Redwood Christian Schools outside the UGB at the mouth of Palomares Canyon in east Castro Valley. The school argued that educational institutions were permitted outside the UGB and further that the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act required the county to approve a religious school. The Supervisors properly decided that schools meant to serve urban children must remain inside the UGB. Redwood Christian sued, but the board held its ground and was ultimately successful in court.

More recently, the Board has denied permits for large pet-boarding kennels outside the UGB, accepting the Sierra Club’s argument that under Measure D, commercial uses designed to serve urban residents must remain inside the UGB. A similar decision was made in denying an expansion permit for an existing recreational-vehicle storage facility outside the UGB in south Livermore.

Unfortunately, the Board has not uniformly supported such a strict interpretation. In the early 2000s two large natural-gas power plants were proposed for the east side of the Altamont Pass near the San Joaquin County line. Although the authority for approving these power plants rests with the California Energy Commission, the Commission must determine whether the projects comply with local land-use requirements, and so asked Alameda County for its opinion. Even though the initiative contains an express limitation on the size of infrastructure that can be built, the county responded that these massive power plants do comply. The county gets property-tax revenues from such facilities, and it negotiated million-dollar mitigation fees from the plant operators, so that it had large incentives to say that Measure D permits the plants. The Energy Commission accepted the county’s interpretation and approved the two plants. Fortunately, neither facility was built. The permit for one expired unused, and the builder of the second, Calpine, withdrew its application in March.

In a current certification case now before the Energy Commission, however, where the Club is an intervenor, the county has argued again that a natural-gas peaker power plant is consistent with Measure D. Property taxes and mitigation fees again seem to be the operative motive. A decision by the Energy Commission is still a few months off, but it is clear that the county will ignore Measure D when it can, if it sees a monetary benefit.

The future

Looking forward, three significant threats are visible.

Equestrian interests have complained that Measure D prevents them from building large covered arenas for horseback riding and training facilities. Measure D does limit the total floor area of buildings to 1% of a parcel’s area. Large equestrian facilities need to be set on large properties to keep their operations proportionate with the natural setting. Unfortunately, two supervisors are sympathetic to the riding industry and have directed county staff to prepare an amendment to Measure D that would double the allowable floor area. We fear that the Supervisors may try to enact this amendment, without going to the voters, as a “technical clarification” of Measure D. If the Board tries this tactic, the Club will need to oppose it.

Some solar developers have proposed covering thousands of acres of the county’s remaining prime farmland with solar collectors. The Club supports renewable energy, but not the building of large-scale power plants—solar or otherwise—on land designated for agriculture and open space.

When the developed parts of Alameda County have so many rooftops and parking lots on which to place solar collectors, there does not need to be a trade-off of one important environmental value for another.

Despite Measure D, developers continue to eye open space for urban development. The most imminent threat is to Doolan Canyon, a beautiful open-space buffer between Dublin and Livermore north of I-580, where Pacific Union is proposing a 2,000-unit senior-housing project. This unincorporated land is now protected by Measure D, but the developers have approached the city of Dublin to annex the land to allow development within an expanded city limit. Annexation would offer a way around Measure D, which applies only to unincorporated areas. Should Dublin leaders look favorably on this project, we will need to undertake a large fight to protect the canyon.

Measure D hasn’t solved all our problems, but it has been remarkably effective. Compared with previous decades, when we had to fight a constant stream of massive development proposals, and we won some and lost some, the last decade has been pretty placid. Enacting Measure D took time, energy, and money–but it has saved us immense efforts since. It hasn’t eliminated the need for constant watchfulness, but it has stanched the ongoing loss of open space.

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