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Marin 2016 - Part II: Will the suburbs be hunted to extinction?

The early 1980’s witnessed a significant inflection point for the world’s economies. The 1970’s had been a very difficult decade in the U.S. Inflation rose dramatically, there was an energy crisis, and the stock market essentially went nowhere. By March of 1980, inflation in the U.S. was running at 14.8 percent. In response, Paul Volker, then chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, pushed interest rates up to unprecedented levels. By June of 1981 the federal funds rate hit 20 percent and inflation was stopped in its tracks. It took time for the economy to mend. However, ironically, this inauspicious beginning set in motion the longest economic boom in our history.

Prior to 1980, private and government debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product was relatively contained (other than during World War II and at the time of the birth of our nation). But, even with interest rates starting out so high, the 1980’s also saw the beginnings of a public and private debt binge never seen before in peace times. But, debt is a funny thing. Although it becomes an increasing weight on the backs of future generations, its leverage is highly simulative for a consumption-driven economy, in the short term.

Debt and its side-kick, financial leverage, make up for a lot of mistakes… for a while.

Since the early 1980’s, one of the prime beneficiaries of this phenomenon was the suburbs. The suburbs boomed for many reasons. Cities at that time were basket cases with failing governments, abandoned neighborhoods, and rising crime rates. Some, such as New York City, had barely escaped bankruptcy in the mid 1970’s. The “chicken in every pot” and two cars in every garage middle class, suburban lifestyle born in the 1950’s, fueled by easy credit and underwritten by the demographic coincidence of tens of millions of post-World War II baby boomers raising families made the American Dream look vibrant.

Consumption rose steadily from the early 1980’s, helped by falling interest rates, more “creative” lending practices, and an explosion of new financial vehicles (remember “junk bonds, the savings and loan crisis, and the Crash of 1987?”). However, things were not as good as they seemed, under the glittery surface. The inflation adjusted compensation of the average American worker stopped rising in the early 1980’s, and within a few years actually started to fall, which it has been doing pretty much ever since.

Among many other effects, the financial environment since the mid 1980’s has allowed government, consumption, and growth in general, to expand at unsustainable rates. By the late 1990’s, fueled by a frenzy for anything “tech,” the turn of the 21st century had us believing that this leverage-driven[1] system had created an egalitarian utopia that would go on forever. Again, debt and leverage are great at masking what’s really going on, until they’re not, as was the case with the stock market crash of 2000.

As bad as the NASDAQ’s fall was, losing 78% of its value from its closing high of 5,408 on March 10th of 2000, to its closing low of 1,114 on October 9th of 2002, by 2008 we had taken debt and leverage to whole new level.

Through it all, however, the suburbs remained highly desirable and housing prices bounced back faster there when the ensuing recession past. That desirability remains clearly evident by the prices the markets have put on property values. At the same time, since the mid-1970’s, suburbs, and particularly in counties such as Marin, have worked hard to maintain a balance of nature and development, and individuals have made enormous investments in their homes and their schools, all of which has produced a quality of life that is unmatched[2]. And, although the “echo boom” generation demographic bulge has recently skewed public polling to show that urban living is desirable (and it’s where most jobs are for young people), in reality and over the long term, people have always chosen to own a home with a small yard that they can call their own, if given half a chance to do so.

As it stands today, the imbalances and inequities of our highly leveraged system can no longer be masked by debt because debt is now clearly our biggest problem. Debt in all its forms, public and private, are arguably the biggest damper on our prosperity, now and in the future, and our ability to address a wide variety of challenges such as public transportation, affordable housing, health care reform, environmental preservation, climate change, and so many more of our tragedies of the commons. And as noted above, we are increasingly dependent on “a la carte” financing of public services, in order to hide the enormity of our unfunded debt load.

In addition, though everyone now accepts that too much debt is a bad thing, we are at the same time so thoroughly, economically addicted to debt that without it the withdrawal effects of going “cold turkey” could collapse the entire global economy. And, ironically, as much as we need to address financial reform (i.e., public pension reform, etc.), we probably have to actually increase public sector debt even more to rebuild our aging infrastructure, improve public transportation, provide equal access to quality education, and improve public services (Can we please have our cities be open for business as many weekdays as the rest of us have to work?).

But, no one is more addicted to debt and leverage, and consequently unsustainable growth than large cities.

In the Bay Area, San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland, are the most dependent on increasing revenues from more and more development and growth just to survive. Suburban counties, such as Marin County, though not without our problems, are in relatively better financial shape and less dependent upon growth.

At least, so far.

This situation has produced something that might be called “suburb envy,” and has resulted in a political juggernaut called “regionalism.” Regionalism purports to “fix” the imbalances in our system by attacking suburbia’s so-called “NIMBY” tendencies to not do our “fair share.”

A half century ago, regional thinking started out as a good idea: an honest attempt to coordinate the planning efforts of all the cities and towns in the nine county San Francisco Bay Area. More recently, however, it has morphed into something quite different: an all encompassing Bay Area Plan to urbanize the suburbs, under the guise of combating climate change and something called "Smart Growth."

The current theory is that this self-righteous transformation can be accomplished by dictating quotas and growth benchmarks for small towns, and by wresting control of local zoning away from locally, elected officials and agencies. This push to take over governance is coming from the very top, from HUD in Washington DC and Sacramento.

At the risk of greatly over simplifying, this translates into big cities and “stakeholder” groups such as the Bay Area Council (the “Voice of Bay Area Business,” an organization dominated by mega corporations), promoting top down, regional “planning” (translation: increasing growth, taxes, and density) as a ploy to exploit and extract the preserved natural and economic resources of the suburban communities, and to bail urban centers out of the growth and housing messes they find themselves in.

The battle by suburban communities to keep from becoming like their urban neighbors has nothing to do with being a progressive or a conservative or any other particular political persuasion. It's very much about real things like balanced budgets, aging sewer lines, road repair, grossly inadequate public transportation, and overflowing school rooms. Anyone who tries to skew the discussion politically is just playing on people's emotions to avoid the difficulty of addressing real solutions.

In any case, the suburbs are now clearly in the cross hairs of increasingly powerful and well-funded, regional decision makers, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (“MTC”)... and that is indeed worrisome.

The nature of political change

What really matters are the countless small deeds of unknown people who lay the basis for the events of human history. These are the people who have made change in the past; they are responsible for making change in the future, too. ~ Howard Zinn

As overwhelming as these political forces pressuring Marin may be, it’s just all the more reason to make an organized effort to oppose them. One of the most effective ways to actually bring about changes in how our government operates is to start small and expand from that. That’s why it’s important to push back every time we find evidence of mismanagement, incompetence, or law breaking. If we don’t, we’re just enabling bad behavior and allowing bad precedents to be set. If we let government get away with doing a poor job or allow them to ignore regulations, we’re just abdicating our responsibilities as citizens and the problems will continue to grow.

If we fail to do that, we’ll deserve what we get.

This “pushing back” can take the form of letter writing, protests, petitions, organized community opposition, lawsuits, and ballot initiatives and referendums. But, government needs our ongoing input and even our help, whether they are receptive to it or not. The world has a long history of the public being right long before government understood the issues.

My experience from more than two decades of community involvement in Marin, has taught me that every stand taken to ensure transparency and accountability, no matter how small or inconsequential it may appear, is important. The effects of challenging a single action can be more profound than one might imagine and often sends a message that is much larger than the challenge itself.

Whether it’s an unjustified zoning variance, unresponsiveness to a request for information, lack of an impact analysis required under CEQA, or inadequate public notice about decision-making hearings it’s important to challenge public agencies, because left unchecked, you can rest assured that what happens in one town, today, will be coming to a neighborhood near you in the not too distant future.

If we don’t hold government to high standards, who will?

The importance of local, grassroots, community organizations and their ongoing vigilance cannot be over-emphasized. Community Venture Partners was founded in July of 2013, to support and assist these groups and with the goal of trying to bring a voice of reason to what seemed to be an out of control development situation in Marin. But it was not only poor city planning that CVP sought to challenge, but what we observed as the increasing opacity of the public process itself.

The Marin IJ recently referred to CVP as a ‘watchdog’ group. I take that as a compliment, though I had no idea how big a part of our activities this would be when we started out. While CVP’s over-riding goal continues to be educating the public and demonstrating better planning and development solutions, our role as a watchdog has taught us a great deal about how dysfunctional our local government really is.

CVP hit the ground running in early 2014, challenging the proposed Larkspur Landing Station Area Plan. This ill-conceived proposal was essentially the result of planners falling victim to bribes (called “grants”) from the Bay Area’s major transportation funder, the Metropolitan Planning Commission (“MTC”). At the risk of over simplifying, Larkspur planners made a deal with the Devil, accepting “planning grants” funding in exchange for a promise to “urbanize” their town.[3]

Incredibly, the plan proposed one million square feet of new development (housing, hotels, offices, retail) without a single roadway improvement, new bus route, new ferry run, or other public transportation improvements.

Talk about unsustainable.

Fortunately and much to their credit, the community got wind of it in time to mount a massive, grassroots, “torches and pitchforks” protest, which combined with CVP’s 100 pages of legal comments by experts in land use, CEQA, traffic, biology, wildlife, hydrology, and ecology quickly revealed the whole scheme to be ridiculous. However, it’s also to the credit of Ann Morrison, then the mayor, that instead of mounting a money-wasting battle against the community, the City of Larkspur quickly reversed course and relegated the project to the dustbin, where it belongs.

This was a good lesson in how important it is to not only stop bad ideas, but to challenge the assumptions in order to arrive at well-reasoned arguments for why better solutions exist.

The Larkspur Station Area Plan debacle, however, was a fairly straightforward situation. It was not about government corruption. It was about how an unquestioning, business-as-usual planning process that can’t say “no” to money waved in front of its face, can lead to bad outcomes. But, when we decided to take on the Larkspur Landing Station Area proposal, we never imagined that the planning and decision-making messes we would encounter in the years ahead would make the missteps of that proposal look downright innocent by comparison.

The benefits of community vigilance

Each time an individual or a small group of residents pushes back, it emboldens other community members to stand up and speak out. It assures people that they are not alone and powerless, but can have a voice. Each challenge also builds an ecosystem of like-minded residents and expert advisors, ready to come together more effectively, the next time.

At CVP, each challenge we’ve taken on has added to our growing team of biologists, hydrologists, ecologists, economists, traffic experts, finance and housing experts, and legal advisors. Each challenge has also created new relationships with federal, state, regional and local government agencies, who, surprisingly, don’t always agree with the political agendas of their colleagues. And finally, the positive results of these efforts reverberate through other towns and agencies in Marin.

For example, our recent judgement against the County for their violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, raised government awareness and set off a flurry of memos, directives, and informational workshops for municipal employees in a variety of Marin County cities and agencies, about the importance of adhering to our State’s Open Meetings law. These were all good things.

Still, for every battle that ends in a headline, there are dozens going on every day, led by grassroots groups and volunteer leadership toiling in anonymity.

Everywhere you look

I realize some may remain skeptical that things are as bad as I’m suggesting. And, first off, I want to say that I believe the majority of city and county workers are honest, hardworking people. Similarly, there are many elected officials around the County, who have been working hard to represent community concerns. Names like Pat Eklund of Novato, Frank Egger of Fairfax, Kevin Haroff of Larkspur, and Linda Pfeifer of Sausalito come to mind, as well many others.

However, there is also ample evidence that those elected officials trying to do a good job representing community concerns, are too often heavily pressured and even ostracized by their peers unless they agree to seek “consensus,” no matter how bad that consensus decision may be, or when they suspect they are being misled by staff and third party consultants.

As one former city councilman in Mill Valley said, “How do I know what to ask about something, I don’t know anything about?” A good question and something staff members should make an extra effort not to abuse.

However, being misled or “under informed” by staff, or feeling the need to reach consensus, does not absolve elected representatives of responsibility for their bad decisions. All elected officials should demand that they be fully informed about all the consequences of their decisions, at all times. That’s a basic requirement of the job. Unfortunately, too many fail that test.

Why is that? Is it the result of willful disregard, or incompetence, or something else?

The majority of elected officials in Marin seem more concerned with not rocking the boat than questioning the status quo. Most of the time, to sit in on council meetings you would think you were watching people making dinner plans. The political correctness and timidity is stifling. The overriding desire to be liked and to get along with one’s colleagues seems to dominate everything. Yet, oddly, members of the public who disagree get the opposite treatment. They tend to be politely ignored and their opinions dismissed by whatever means are most expeditious.

Civility is all well and good unless political correctness is used to silence dissenting opinions or as an excuse to shoot the messenger.

There is little doubt that the lack of responsiveness to opposing views is coming from the very top: predominately elected officials and their appointed department heads. Even so, some of you may still be thinking it’s naïve to “fight City Hall.” After all, hasn’t government always been a mess? So why be so concerned about it now?

To that, I’d like to suggest that times have changed and the stakes are higher than in the past.

Yes, growth and new development have always changed the face of communities. And politics and back room deals have gone hand in hand since time immemorial. But in Marin, until recently, our suburban and rural lifestyle remained relatively unchanged for decades. Today, the magnitude of planning, the pace of growth, and scale of development have accelerated to such an extent that our margin of error has become razor thin.

Building one out of place apartment building in the 1960’s may have defaced a neighborhood or a hillside, but plans to add thousands of new high density units up and down the Highway 101 corridor,[4] and new State Laws that seek to stimulate housing construction at any cost will fundamentally change the quality of life and the entire County’s suburban and semi-rural character.

And I won’t even mention traffic.

Likewise, homeowners and governments have always shouldered debt to underwrite growth and keep the lights on. But today’s fiscal management trend, with its endless local tax initiatives, enormous unfunded pension liabilities, and fee-dependent municipal operating budgets threaten to impoverish us all.

There is no question that our quality of life is directly connected to the authenticity of our public process and the public policy decisions that result. And, although growth is the natural tendency of things, it’s also far from inevitable. Its magnitude and pace are decisions we need to make very carefully or we risk killing the Golden Goose that makes Marin a desirable place to live and raise a family.

Lack of government transparency, the resultant negative impacts, and more fees and taxes that raise the cost of living will neither preserve our County’s unique character, nor achieve our professed affordability and social justice goals.

When unelected staff directs public policy it never ends well

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about how the behavior of unelected staff was a key to WinCup’s approval. However, it’s not unique to that project.

Planning commissions and town councils all around Marin are too often making major decisions without sufficient information that is readily available. In my opinion, this is increasingly due to how they are being “handled” by paid staff and consultants. By providing partial answers, withholding critical information, and treating decision makers on a need-to-know basis municipal staff, city managers, consultants and even a city’s own legal counsel often mislead elected officials in their planning and public policy deliberations.

Too often I’ve witnessed legitimate inquiry met with narrowly interpreted responses, even when the elected official was clearly asking about the big picture implications. There are only two possible explanations for this. Either staff’s behavior is intentional and premeditated, or they are ignorant and incompetent.

Let’s look at the first possibility.

It used to be that paid staff was politically neutral and steered clear of public policy. That has always been the province of elected government. However, more and more, staff reports are thinly veiled promotions of policies favored by the developer applicants, their consultants, or highly politicized outside agencies (who are often sources of funding).

We saw this throughout the County when State Housing Elements were being drafted. That process, mostly driven by staff and consultants wanting to “fill their file” and curry favor at the Department of Housing and Community Development in Sacramento (“HCD”), wrote reports that read as if written by HCD, themselves.

Public comments challenging those reports were repeatedly dismissed with blanket statements about how the municipality had no choice because HCD “required” it, which was just not true.

The impossible paradox

No one likes to be blamed for something and most of us don’t like placing blame on others. It makes us uncomfortable, particularly if we have to run into them at Whole Foods or school functions, or on a more subtle level, if we worry that we might need them as a political ally at some point in the future. This is why so many business people give money to both candidates running for office in an election. You never know who you might need a favor from.

So reading criticism about the performance of local public servants can be difficult to swallow.

But, sometimes we just have to call it like we see it.

At the same time, human nature is such that if you were to ask any elected official or staff member in Marin County if they’re doing a good job, 100% of them would emphatically tell you, without a moment’s hesitation, that they care deeply about their community and that they are doing everything they possibly can for it. And most of them would honestly believe that to be true.

The problem, of course, is that it just isn’t true. Everyone isn’t doing a great job or giving it all they could. Not even close. But, self-honesty and self-awareness, like any other talents, are not something everyone has. Narcissism, stubbornness, ego, small-mindedness, and a plain lack of common sense get in the way of too many decisions, far too often.

Of course, if stupidity was illegal, we’d all be under house arrest. Even so, it's one thing for me to do something bone-headed that screws up my life, but quite another for some bureaucrat to do something that does the same.

So, all of this is why constant community engagement is mandatory, even if only to remind those who govern that we’re watching. Because otherwise, history has clearly shown that the results are not good.

Still not convinced?

Look closer.

Read Part I - Is representative government slipping away?

Read Part III - Dispatches from the front - Mill Valley

Read Part IV - Dispatches from the front - Corte Madera

Read Part V - Dispatches from the front - Hamilton Field

Read Part VI - Dispatches from the Front - Marin County Government

Read Part VII - What will you do when Marin is no longer Marin?

Read Part VIII - Hide the ball

Read Part IX - Regionalism

Read Part X - Endgame

[1] Buying on “margin,” which means buying stock with short term, borrowed money, was a major contributor to the illiquidity of markets during the crash, as investors sold stocks at any price to cover their debts (“margin calls”).

[2] And as the adoption of alternative-fueled vehicles and installations of solar rooftop power have increased rapidly, suburbs are turning “green” many times faster than urban areas.

[3] The grant agreement used the terms “urban” and “urbanize” no less than seven times, while these terms do not appear once in the Larkspur General Plan.

[4] There are currently thousands of units of high density multifamily housing in various stages of planning and development in the Highway 101 corridor from Southern Marin to Novato.