Have you heard about Brisbane in San Mateo County, population 4,700, where legislators are threatening new regulations if local voters don’t change their General Plan? Why should you care? Because, if legislative trends continue, local voters’ wishes everywhere will be trampled.
Universal Paragon Corp. (UPC) has pushed to develop Brisbane Baylands for 12 years. It proposes 2,200 housing units and 7 million square feet (121 football fields) of commercial space on former railyard and sanitary landfill.
Brisbane residents — like any community with history, character, and pride — have resisted, based on concerns about toxicity, traffic, sea-level rise and infrastructure like water and schools’ capacity. The City Council recently voted 4-1 to amend its General Plan to favor UPC but agreed to put it to a vote in this fall’s election.
You might think a public vote would be the end of the story. But Brisbane’s Sen. Jerry Hill and Sen. Scott Wiener disagree. Wiener, author of SB 827 and SB 828, is also the force behind SB 35, one of 14 bills passed in 2017 that makes it easier for developers to build high-density housing, while dismantling local regulations of the General Plan, Housing Element, Design Review and California Environmental Quality Act requirements.
If voters reject the amendment, Wiener and Hill threaten to introduce legislation that would force Brisbane to comply.
This push to reduce local control is nothing new. In 1989, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development published the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) Report that contended local planning and zoning control were an impediment to affordable housing and private, for-profit development. Recently, big business, developers and big banking have backed a national Yes-In-My-Backyard (YIMBY) campaign.
UPC, taking a page from the YIMBY playbook, writes, “The region is in a housing crisis and every jurisdiction, including Brisbane, has an obligation to help meet the region’s housing needs.”
Really? Why is tiny Brisbane responsible?
It’s time to change this housing narrative from “crisis” — requiring heavy-handed, top-down “solutions” — to a collaborative approach that respects the voices of people who live with the impacts of decisions.
Before the Great Depression, President Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business.” It’s still true: Big business is doing its job when it generates profits for shareholders. After the Depression, brought on by the shenanigans of big business, Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded the country, “The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not ... congressmen and government officials, but the voters.”
The core question then is who has the right to decide the future: the people in the community who pay taxes, raise families and strive to protect their environment, or the legislators who pass laws to benefit big business that measure success by profit margins, externalizing expenses, reducing taxes, seeking subsidies — and making campaign contributions?
What is the new narrative? There is a housing problem, but the crisis is the legislative strong arm to dismantle local control, which destroys democracy.
The tide is turning. New York Times columnist David Brooks on July 19 wrote “The Localist Revolution” about a national trend to flip the power structure away from centralized control.
Locally, the trend is taking hold. The newly formed Tri-Valley Coalition (Pleasanton, Livermore, Dublin and Danville) is battling state legislation that strips their cities of local control. Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand and former Beverly Hills mayor John Mirisch are drafting a ballot initiative to restore local democracy. And Livable California, a nine-county coalition with ties to Los Angeles community groups, is educating the public, supporting candidates and advocating for sound public policy.
Whether it’s Brisbane or your community, it’s the will of the people that matters. Elected officials who disagree should be voted out of office.
Susan Kirsch of Mill Valley is chair of Livable California and a former candidate for the Marin County Board of Supervisors.