Plan Bay Area: Local Big Daddy of Regionalism

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the big daddy of regionalism is Plan Bay Area.  Its status deserves a dedicated website page.  On this page, we would like to offer our views of what is Plan Bay Area, why the Plan merits concern, and what residents can do if they do feel concern.  

What is Plan Bay Area?

According to its website, “Plan Bay Area is a long-range integrated transportation and land-use/housing strategy through 2040 for the San Francisco Bay Area.  On July 18, 2013, the Plan was jointly approved by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) Executive Board and by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).” 

The website goes on to say that “Plan Bay Area marks the nine-county region’s first long-range plan to meet the requirements of California’s landmark 2008 Senate Bill 375, which calls on each of the state’s 13 metropolitan areas to develop a Sustainable Communities Strategy to accommodate future population growth and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks.” 

Why is the above description of Plan Bay Area worrisome?

oThe Plan never appeared on any ballot to receive voters’ approval, instead it was approved by agencies.

oDevelopers of the Sustainable Communities Strategy are agency planners, who need not answer to voters should their plan cause more harm than good.

oGoing forward, voters will continue to be excluded from the discussion, except for a well-established charade called “community input.” Planners make plans, hold meetings, the public speaks, and the plans are implemented with little or no changes.

What are the major land-use characteristics of Plan Bay Area?

Plan Bay Area has two land-use components.  Priority Development Areas (PDAs), located along transit corridors, are where 80% of Bay Area’s population is to live and work.  Priority Conservation Areas (PCAs) are designated open spaces.

Special Features of PDAs:

Developer-financed or tax-payer financed subsidized housing.

Mixed-use multi-family projects.

Transit-oriented transportation.

Special Features of PCAs:

Open space, wildlife and plant habitats, aquatic ecosystems, agricultural lands, and urban green spaces.

Nearly 95% of property in the Bay Area, public and private.

Policy protected, with limited development and use of property.

What about neighborhoods?  Where do they fit in?

Outlying neighborhoods in large cities and outlying small towns near cities fall in-between PDAs and large PCAs.  The Plan Bay Area website, in its extensive FAQs page says, “Most single-family neighborhoods will remain unchanged. Plan Bay Area recognizes the diversity of communities across our region.”

Why are these land-use designations worrisome?

Challenges with PDAs:  Look at the numbers

80% of Bay Area’s population is expected to live and work in transit corridors.  That’s around 6,120,000 people out of a total Bay Area population at last count of 7,650,000.  Rather crowded.  Some might even call it “stack-and-pack.” 

20% of people will live in neighborhoods and small towns, which according to Plan Bay Area will not be affected. Really? With limited resources being focused on transit corridors, can neighborhood services remain unscathed?  With significant growth pressures within transit corridors, will neighborhoods be spared?  The October 2016 San Francisco Board of Supervisor’s discussion on “annexing” the town of Brisbane should dissuade anyone from the thought that neighborhoods and small towns will be left alone.

The reason for the 80% concentration is ostensibly reduction of green house gasses by limiting the use of private vehicles.  If large numbers of people work where they live, if where they live makes it as irritating as possible to drive a car, if their homes must be “mixed use” so there is no need to go far to shop, then the result says the theory is clean air.  Of course, the theory also says that public transit is a crucial part of the plan.  Have you seen the great improvements in BART and in your local municipal transit that make you want to sell your car?  No?

Challenges with PCAs:  Challenges depend on types of PCAs

PCAs in urban areas:  Are usually municipal spaces such as Lake Merritt (Alameda County) and Octavia Street (San Francisco County).  Since such property already belongs to governments, private property is not directly threatened.  Challenges are, therefore, limited to government’s hunger for acquisition of such land from private owners, and traffic annoyances such as removal of lanes in favor of green strips.

PCAs in more open spaces:  These might be scenic areas such as Mount Diablo State Park (Contra Costa County) and Coyote Hills Regional Park (Alameda County).  The challenge of government hunger for acquisition goaded by environmentalists’ zeal (and well-paying environment-related jobs) is present here also.  Once land is in government’s hands, it usually stays there, regardless of changing circumstances. 

PCAs in farm and ranchland:  These might be land trusts such as Marin Agricultural Land Trust (Marin County) and Solano Land Trust (Solano County).  A common way land trusts are created is by land owners selling or donating an easement to a conservation group or other conservation entity in exchange for some benefit.  The benefit might be a tax break or the best way to respond to intense pressure from environmental groups.  In order to receive benefits the trusts must be irrevocable in perpetuity.  So if circumstances change for either the owner or the community, too bad.  Everybody is stuck.

What can Bay Area residents do if they are concerned?

oForm alliances:  People might be concerned about Plan Bay Area for vastly different reasons.  Find people and groups that share your reason.  Such groups might include property owners, taxpayer advocates, those threatened with displacement or with drastic changes in their neighborhoods, transit-rider advocates.

oSpread the word:  Organize rallies, distribute flyers, write letters to the media, get on talk shows as a guest or a caller, start an on-line blog, build a website.

oCommunicate with your local council members and state legislators:  Attend council meetings, write to your state representatives, express the flaws you see in Plan Bay Area.

oWatch for enabling legislation:  As long as Bay Area bureaucracies behave according to federal mandates, they receive federal housing, transportation, and other funds that help support Plan Bay Area.  Some money also comes from state agencies.  However, these funds are not nearly enough, so legislation is necessary at the local, state and federal levels to generate more funding. In some cases, this gives voters concerned about the negative effects of Plan Bay area a voice.

Here is a sample of what enabling legislation looks like:
a. Re-establishment of redevelopment agencies or similar mechanisms such as infrastructure financing districts.

b. Modification of the Environmental Quality Act to relax its restrictions.

c. Acquisition of more federal funds through tax code incentives.

d. “Defiscalization” of land use decisions through modification of property tax codes.  This might entail lowering the threshold for passing tax-increase measures, and amending or eliminating California’s Proposition 13.  

e.  Laundry lists of tax proposals with sappy descriptions as “housing for all,” or “citizens for a sustainable downtown.”

Is there a better alternative to Plan Bay Area?

Most Bay Area residents would not want to trade breathtaking views, green spaces, local fresh produce, hiking trails, and relatively clean air for high-rise buildings on our beaches, cement-covered cities, and wilted veggies that have travelled long distances.  With some good research, willingness to get involved in community decision making, and readiness to wield power at the voting booth, residents can incentivize their elected officials to work with them and with neighboring cities in creating neighborhoods and communities.  One-size fits all, top-down, draconian solutions like Plan Bay Area become irrelevant given a motivated citizenry.

Vision or Micromanagement?

 All cities in the United States have “planning departments,” responsible for reasonably safe and attractive places to live.  San Francisco and the Bay Area have upped the ante, and given us “Plan Bay Area” (also referred as One Bay Area, Smart Cities, Sustainable Development).  Ostensibly to confront rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions , Plan Bay Area is forging ahead with plans for significantly reducing private vehicle miles, dense development near transit lines, linking development of affordable housing with market rate housing , open space preservation – in essence, laying the groundwork for micromanagement of your life and mine.

Plan Bay Area did not simply arise like Venus from the waves, but is the result of legislative precedents.  California AB 32, The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, requires California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels no later than 2020.  California SB 375 of 2008 asserts that without improved land use and transportation policy, the state will not be able to achieve the goals of AB 32.  SB 375 indicates that, “The issue was not ‘if’ land use and transportation policy were going to be connected to reducing greenhouse gas emissions but ‘how’ and ‘when.’  The issue was not ‘if’ a governmental entity would regulate the car and light truck in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions…but ‘how’ and ‘when’.”  Along with the how and when regarding transportation and land use as directly related to greenhouse gas emissions, SB 375 and Plan Bay Area , provide how and when to ensure that all income levels “benefit” from the plan.  Once again, we are faced with exhaustive regulations ensuring outcomes, rather than guidelines ensuring opportunities.

Plan Bay Area is not officially associated with United Nations’ declarations.  However, it is inevitable that relationships will arise.  The United States signed the U.N. Declaration of Environment and Development (Rio Declaration, and Agenda 21, 1992), as well as the Conference on Human Environment (Stockholm Declaration, 1972).  These declarations are non-binding guidelines, and not subject to U.S. Senate ratification; but they do come with watchdog agencies that track progress and exercise moral suasion.

Numerous state and city agencies are involved in this plan, but the entities in charge of the show are the Association of Bay Area Government (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).  These two agencies have worked on the development of this plan since 2008, and have a Schedule of Milestones(deadlines), culminating on implementation in April 2013.

Everyone likes clean air, sustainable environments, and a good stock of housing affordable to diverse income groups.  These objectives can best be achieved by promoting policies that allow entrepreneurs to grow, thrive, and create employment; innovative mass transportation systems (including private providers and niche services) that serve communities wherever communities spring up; education encouraging good citizenships (it used to be that folks did not think twice before tossing a beer can out of the car window, or dropping a candy wrapper anywhere; that behavior is no longer the norm).  The freedom to use your private property as you see fit is a principle worth preserving; plans that attempt to micromanage property, inevitably chase away those who are willing to take the risks of ownership.

[A version of this article first appeared on the Libertarian Party of San Francisco website.  This version appears here with permission.]