Last night, two unelected regional government bodies in the Bay Area, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), held a “public hearing” at the Marriott in Walnut Creek. The announced purpose of the meeting was to seek public input on its recently released draft Plan Bay Area, a 166-page document that outlines MTC’s and ABAG’s plans to fundamentally alter our local communities and way of life, all in the name of protecting the environment and reducing the supposed threat of global climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
The backdrop against which Plan Bay Area was crafted is this: in 2006, the Democrat-controlled legislature passed, and Governor Schwarzenegger signed, AB 32, which requires California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Subsequently, in 2008, the argument was made by Democrats in the legislature that development patterns needed to change to encourage less private automobile use if the goals of AB 32 were to be met, which led them to pass, and Schwarzenegger to sign, SB 375, a bill with an Orwellian-sounding name—the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008. It is under SB 375 that regional government entities such as MTC and ABAG have claimed the authority to act, and override the decisions of local city councils and county boards of supervisors.
After the ABAG and MTC officials in attendance—including ABAG Vice President and Mayor of Clayton Julie Pierce, Mayor of Orinda Amy Worth, and Contra Costa County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff—introduced themselves, attendees were given the opportunity to share their views on the draft plan for two minutes each. An overwhelming majority of the speakers (at least 5 to 1) were opposed, not just to the specific plan, but to the very premise that a regional government is coming in and forcing us to allow the construction of high-density housing and discourage automobile use. Interestingly, the loudest and most numerous voices against Plan Bay Area came from the City of Orinda (many were from an organization called Orinda Watch) and are constituents of Mayor Worth’s. Generally, the speakers against the plan pointed out that they had lived in their homes for decades, in thriving communities such as Orinda and Lafayette, and stated that they did not welcome efforts to irrevocably change these cities’ “semi-rural” character by building mixed-use housing for low-income tenants. They also communicated that their local government’s decision-making processes were being improperly usurped by MTC and ABAG, and that ordinary citizens were being given an unreasonably short 45-day period to review and comment on the draft plan, considering that it is 166 pages long and the associated Environmental Impact Report is over 1,000 pages long.
The majority of the speakers in favor of Plan Bay Area came from outside Central Contra Costa County, generally from poorer cities that could theoretically benefit by dumping some of their residents in wealthier cities such as Orinda, Lafayette, and Walnut Creek, leaving these cities to house them, transport them to and from work, and provide them with basic government services. One speaker, Adam Garcia, identified himself as a current resident of San Francisco who was born and raised in Richmond. Having just been preceded by a series of speakers all opposing the plan, he claimed the overall composition of people in the room “underrepresented” the poor and minorities. Two young women, Erica Hahn and Amie Fleming, followed Garcia, and spoke of how wonderful it is to ride their bike everywhere and not need to have a car (it was discovered afterward, but not disclosed by the speakers, that Garcia and Fleming, along with another speaker, John Chapman, and possibly others, were paid staffers from an advocacy group called the Greenbelt Alliance). Others claimed that cramped, high-density housing is somehow more desirable than single-family homes, used typical liberal code words such as equity and inclusion, and suggested that it’s somehow wrong for affluent cities containing mainly single-family homes and residents who own cars to seek to stay that way, rather than allowing developers to build high-density, low-income housing stacked and packed near their BART stations and downtowns.
Despite the overwhelming opposition to Plan Bay Area at this hearing, and the occurrence of similar meetings with similar results in the past, it is abundantly clear that the officials who sit on MTC and ABAG intend to ignore the opposition and proceed with their plans anyway. They have not addressed the objections in the process of putting together the draft, and, judging from their demeanor at last night’s meeting, there is no reason to believe they will do so now. It appears that the best course of action may be for concerned citizens to pressure their elected city councilmen to withdraw their cities from ABAG and MTC. Also, the Post-Sustainability Institute, an activist group that had several representatives at the meeting, has announced plans to file a lawsuit to stop the plan.
Speaking for myself, I chose to move to Walnut Creek about two-and-a-half years ago, and buy a home here slightly over a year ago, because I appreciate the city’s suburban, car-friendly lifestyle. I enjoy living a reasonable distance away from offices and retail stores, and the availability of plenty of parking when I choose to visit these establishments. I’m also grateful for Walnut Creek’s low crime rate and good schools, and I know that building lots of high-density housing near the BART station intended for low-income residents would adversely affect Walnut Creek’s crime and schools. Although ABAG and MTC call their joint effort One Bay Area, the fact is, as one of last night’s speakers mentioned, we are not “one” Bay Area but dozens of individual communities. I do not see my political interests as aligned with those of residents in “progressive” cities such as Richmond, Oakland, and San Francisco, and I do not wish to be governed by a regional body containing representatives from these cities that has the power to override the Walnut Creek City Council.