Marin communities are trying to develop plans to meet the ambitious housing quotas set by the state.
Local officials are hearing complaints that they are rolling back generations of land use protections.
They are. But don’t blame them; the criticism is said to be directed against Sacramento.
There’s no debate that the state is facing a housing crisis, but Sacramento’s solution is to rewrite the rules and undermine local control over land use.
These rules have helped protect the Marin landscape from over-development.
At the same time, these restrictions, which have been tightened over the years, have fueled rising house prices and severely reduced the availability of affordable housing – creating an exclusionary market that raises legitimate questions about racial and economic justice.
Because of this, Marin has become one of the state’s political poster child when it comes to local land-use restrictions that need to be scaled back to allow new housing to be built.
For too long, Marin has ignored Sacramento’s demands that it build its regional fair share of housing. Few, if any, politicians are elected on promises to build more affordable housing. Those who have promised to be tough on developers and builders occupy the seats of elected decision-makers.
Marin sees herself as an example of a metropolitan community that didn’t allow its landscape to be covered by suburbs or urban development.
Strong political opposition to change and development remains strong, but officials’ legal tools have been severely weakened, almost to the point where developers’ plans, conforming to the weakened local zoning, can expect near-automatic approval.
The days of people flooding council and planning commission chambers and drowning developers’ goals and plans are numbered, thanks to state legislatures. Besides protests from neighbors, growth has also been slowed down by costly and time-consuming bureaucracy and regulations.
Now the County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission are attempting to create a local plan to meet the state mandated goal of building 3,569 new homes in the unincorporated areas of Marin between 2023 and 2031.
Other communities are facing similarly hard-to-reach numbers.
District planning staff have created a list of 79 potential sites.
Many will provoke protests from neighbors, but local officials don’t have many available options because much of the unincorporated area consists of local, state and federal open spaces and parkland, or is protected by agricultural zones. There aren’t many locations available, especially when officials are also trying to stay away from locations considered risky in terms of sea level rise or wildfires.
The state also requires that the county work with water authorities to develop strategies needed to provide enough water for growth.
In addition to identifying potential sites, local control is limited to “objective design standards” such as elevation, setbacks, lot coverage, and parking requirements. These can prove crucial in preventing overbuilding.
The goals for affordable housing remain the same – the right locations in terms of proximity to work and transport, as well as the right size and design. But instead of the political inclination to say “no” — either directly or by imposing conditions and restrictions on plans — to those who might meet those criteria, Sacramento officials’ discretion has been severely limited.
It’s a new day for developers and builders – and for those who have fought growth to protect their neighborhoods and the local environment.
While county supervisors and other local officials are trying to understand these top-down ratios on the ground, there’s no sign that Sacramento has any intention of changing its mindset.