The December 12, 2022 Marin County Planning Commission meeting (12/12/22) was astonishing both in length and intensity.
It’s difficult to condense the scope of the discussion that night, so I’m giving credit here to Richard Halstead for being able to distill the substance for a larger audience.
But for me, two things came into clear focus that night.
1. The Planning Commissioners are dedicated to preserving planning control over safety, the environment, and communities.
2. The planning staff have gone in the other direction, ready to gut the County Wide Plan to more expediently give control to developers.
January 31st is a critical deadline. The County must submit the Housing Element to the state for certification, showing where 3,569 housing units can be developed in unincorporated Marin. There are serious consequences for non-compliance.
The marathon six-hour meeting on the 12th stood apart from earlier meetings. The difference was the Commissioner’s clarity that long-standing policies and zoning that bolster safety and quality of life for both current and future residents are being eroded.
Unfortunately, planning staff have embraced Sacramento’s simplistic contention that three things: zoning, public input, and CEQA (environmental/impact studies) are what stand in the way of housing that is cheap and plentiful. They seem comfortable siting housing in disaster-prone areas.
Chair Dickenson commented,
“We have spent a lot of time and have good policies in the Safety Element, but it doesn’t seem to me that’s reflected in a significant number of the sites.”
The truth is most of unincorporated Marin has long been considered built-out. We are covered in marshland subject to sea rise, fire hazard zones with little or no evacuation egress, and areas subject to earthquake liquefaction, landslides, and sinking. The Draft Environmental Impact Report identified 15 significant and unavoidable impacts from the mandated housing, but the state doesn’t allow any of this to lower the RHNA. The county still has to work with the space it has, and resort to either densifying another site area or rezoning more areas residential. The last revision of the county HE puts 72 units (more, with density bonuses) in the Mill Valley Holiday Inn parking lot — the exact location recently featured in a NYT article noting the hazards of building here. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/15/climate/us-rising-sea-levels.html
Staff frequently sought to minimize the negative effects changes to the County Wide Plan would have. But pushback by the Commissioners was strong and unanimous.
Staffs’ proposed new wording on community plans elicited multiple objections. Commissioner Curran noted,
“Community plans are effectively seriously threatened, if not eviscerated, by this proposal.”
As a member of the Tam Design Review Board, I was heartened by Chair Dickenson’s support:
“We are not eliminating the community plans, and they will stay.”
Staff portrayed new objective design standards, rebranded as “Form-Based Code,” that would manage height, mass, and setbacks, as a big win for the county. But after pointed questions, it was obvious that most new multi-family developments in the Housing Element are immune to these restraints.
When the Commissioners pushed back against staffs’ efforts to roll zoning controls back even farther than necessary, staff chided them for not embracing new policy earlier.
The meeting was heavily attended to the end. Concerned residents who stayed through the six-hour marathon raised questions about housing sites, overwhelmingly citing safety and environmental concerns. The Planning Commission acknowledged the legitimacy of these issues, asking staff repeatedly for more detailed mapping and site visits. The public also frequently said staff seemed to be working in the interests of Sacramento, not Marin.
Most of the new development will be built for profit as market-rate housing and will do little to solve critical housing issues. Yet staff consistently sided with Sacramento in what felt like a race to hand over all meaningful planning to for-profit developers.
As Commissioner Lind ruefully remarked, “We are giving away the store.”
Informed, long-term planning is good stewardship. Public engagement is our right, but soon, not even planners will have a say. CEQA exists because of California’s leadership in environmental protection. Or at least it did. New laws weaken or override local control, with little evidence communities will increase their supply of housing that is affordable.
California housing policy is now a construct that benefits special interests driving Sacramento.
January 5th is the deadline for Housing Element recommendations to go to the Board of Supervisors. Commissioners were rightly concerned that it could now be impossible, with the holidays, to keep their commitment to the community and get their input incorporated before the deadline. Marin is lucky to have a committed Planning Commission that works in the county’s best interests. It’s unfortunate that their relevance is being challenged by their own staff and eroded by our state legislators.