Fairfax’s progressive zoning under threat

Downtown Fairfax. By Ryan, on Flickr.

Downtown Fairfax. By Ryan, on Flickr.

About 16 years ago, I was excited to be a newly-minted Drake High freshman and Fairfax was excited to start on a major update to its General Plan. Three months ago I celebrated my 30th and Fairfax celebrated the passage of the final piece of its general plan update. But last month, the town started to undo its work, and the most substantive part of the General Plan – its zoning and housing elements – are under threat.

These elements are separate but connected pieces. The zoning element is something I neglected to praise when it was first revealed in 2012. It rezones all highway commercial zones as downtown commercial, a dramatic step away from the auto-centric design that defines Sir Francis Drake and Center. It also adds scatters in three Planned Development Districts to accommodate specialized developments: one at Christ Lutheran Church for 40 units of senior housing; one at 10 Olema Road for 22 small, single-family homes; and one at School Street Plaza for 9 homes mixed with commercial space.

Built atop the zoning element is the first state-approved housing element in over a decade. It puts Fairfax in compliance with state law regarding affordable housing, allowing it to avoid writing another housing element for 8 years. The element also allows second units (a major goal of anti-development activists), home sharing, and other non-traditional affordable home formats.

Unfortunately, the zoning element suffered from typos and inconsistencies between its tables and the actual policy text and maps. Though Fairfax’s legal counsel and planning staff assured the public and the council that the typos were not a problem, project opponents alleged the typos opened up dozens of other properties for development. Led by former councilmember Frank Egger, the opponents drew up a ballot initiative to withdraw zoning. That would have the housing element out of compliance with state law and put the town back to Square One.

Opponents relied upon this falsehood to sell their initiative and gathered 1,000 signatures, which they submitted the afternoon before the town council was scheduled to vote on addressing the typos the initiative was intended to address. That locked the zoning from any changes and prevented the council from fixing the problems opponents complained about.

While opponents claim they had no idea this would lock the zoning, it strains credulity that a former mayor and a coterie of old political hands wouldn’t know that legislation that’s the subject of a ballot initiative is locked down.

Yet rather than face a ballot fight and further divide the town, the council decided in a 3-2 vote in May to start the process to rescind the zoning themselves. Mayor David Weinsoff, one of the votes to keep the zoning, said the town was capitulating to bullies.

The vote to rescind is bad policy, an attempt to find a compromise with opponents who refuse to work with the council. If they were concerned about typos, they would have submitted their signatures after the council had a chance to change them, not before. If they were concerned about the content of the General Plan, they had 16 years of public process to voice them.

The rezoning is the most progressive step by any town in Marin

As I’ve said before, the guiding light of this blog’s view that the beauty and livability of its town centers are at the heart of what makes Marin’s towns great. The policy under threat, to allow Fairfax’s downtown to grow into areas where it has not been, fits hand in hand with that understanding.

While other towns have decided to innovate and create standalone developments in driving strips, or to create driving-oriented developments on their fringes, Fairfax decided to invest in its downtown. It’s a recognition that what makes Fairfax great isn’t its parking lots on Center; it’s the shops and homes Bolinas.

Pursuing affordable housing in a way that doesn’t just fit with Fairfax’s character but is inspired by the physical and spiritual heart of town is the only way to turn the lemons of affordable housing mandates into lemonade.

Coalition for a Livable Marin has launched a petition asking the council to stop the process of rescinding the zoning. The coalition’s steering committee, of which I am a member, believes the decision to rescind the zoning is bad for the town. Not only does it spit in the face of downtown, essentially saying it’s an aberration that shouldn’t be replicated, but it puts in jeopardy 71 affordable housing units.

It puts Fairfax on a path toward legal confrontation with California, as the zoning underpins the already-certified Housing Element. And it undoes possibly the most promising reform of second unit policy in the county, setting back a key goal of both affordable housing proponents and the anti-development party.

What the council is doing runs counter to its history as the funky, progressive place we know it as. Fairfax should keep its zoning.

Golden Gate Transit disses Novato commuters

Service meltdown.

Service meltdown.

Last month, Novato transit rider Danny Skarka reported on a bus driver’s claim that, due to a lack of drivers, commute Route 54 would often have cancelled buses under the new schedule. I never heard back from Golden Gate Transit (GGT) about the claim, but it seems Skarka’s driver was right.

For a number of days since the start of the new schedule, Route 54 has cancelled runs without prior notice, apparently on both the southbound and northbound trips. Another rider, Andrew Fox, reports:

[T]he last two 54s I’ve been on have been absolutely jam-packed. Last Wednesday there were numerous standees due to a canceled bus (I took Thursday and Friday off, so I don’t know about those days), and then of course you know about the situation this morning. We had 9 standees, all of whom got on at the busy Alameda del Prado bus pad/park-and-ride.

In my experience the 54 is a very busy bus. Commuters in Novato like me really rely upon it, especially given how miserable traffic has become in the last few years. I for one refuse to drive into the city anymore. Novato commuters have the choice of two different commute bus routes: the 56 or the 54, but the majority of them use the 54 due to the fact that it stops in more locations than the 56. This is a pretty lousy way to encourage transit use.

It’s irksome to see these buses canceled, especially when we hear news of new routes in Southern Marin (“the Wave Bus”) and see buses to Mill Valley (the 4) fly by every 5 minutes or so.

It also seems as though the problem is not isolated to the 54. Sonoma commuter Kathryn Hecht, who rides the 74, reported a cancelled evening run that meant an hour-long delay in San Francisco, as well as a cancelled morning run:

In any other industry, spotty quality is a sign of either a collapsing business model or inept management. The customer service experience is paramount to building a strong brand and strong customer base. For a scheduled service, like transit, this is even more important. People expect consistency, and they expect the schedule to be a promise, not a maybe.

We’ve discussed GGT’s failures in the past, but this is far worse than avoiding real-time arrival systems or not allowing rear-door exits. Simply put, GGT is making a stealth cut to Northern Marin and Sonoma service to expand Central and Southern Marin service. This is bad business and a further sign of GGT’s lack of managerial skill. If it continues, it will lose customers and turn what should be a premium transit product into a product of last resort.

GGT is burning its brand, and for no reason. It should immediately hire new drivers to staunch the bleeding and issue a very public apology to its Northern Marin and Sonoma commuters, perhaps with free rides for a month on the effected routes.

There are deeper structural problems to GGT’s service model, of which this is just a symptom. GGT needs to staunch this bleeding and change its operating model to ensure problems like this never happen again.

Marin’s cities are growing fast, too

Last month, we reported that Marin’s population grew much faster in 2013 than it had historically, up 1 percent rather than the historical average of 0.2 percent. Last week, the US Census released numbers for cities and towns, and the numbers show an equally sunny trend.

Cities and town populations grew an average of 1.1 percent in 2013 led by 1.8 percent growth in Novato, 1.2 percent in Mill Valley, and 1.1 percent in Tiburon.

2013 Population growth. Only unincoporated Marin grew slowly.

2013 Population growth. Only unincoporated Marin grew slowly.

This is on the heels of a very slow growth decade. Between 2000 and 2010, a number of towns shrank: Sausalito, Belvedere, San Anselmo, and Larkspur, along with unincorporated Marin. As you can see from the chart above, not one part of Marin shrank in the past 3 years, a marked change. Of those towns that did grow from 2000-2010, Mill Valley and Corte Madera grew faster in the past 3 years than they did that whole decade. So did Marin County as a whole.

Other towns reversed shrinking trends. Belvedere, Larkspur, San Anselmo, Sausalito, and unincoporated Marin all shrank between 2000 and 2010, and all grew over the past 3 years.

Novato stands apart from the data as by far the fastest-growing city in the county, and it is accelerating along with the rest of the county. Between 2000 and 2010, it grew an average of 0.9 percent per year, while this past year it more than doubled that rate, to 1.8 percent. It is known as the city with the cheapest housing, but much of that cost is offset by driving. The H+T affordability index puts the city as just as unaffordable as the rest of the county, and it’s not surprising. Novatoans have longer commutes than other Marinites, while its high rate of retail leakage means plenty of them are also driving far for errands.

We don’t yet know who these new residents are by city, but we do know that they aren’t births. Most of the new residents to the county at large moved here; were it not for them, we’d be shrinking rapidly.

We also know they aren’t occupying new housing. Over the past 3 years, Marin’s housing stock has been essentially stable, growing by just 0.25 percent.

This throws a wrench into the slow-growth argument against housing. Every city is growing faster than it did from 2000-2010, and this past year every city grew more than 0.8 percent. It’s not just Novato carrying the county.

It also means that, even with essentially nothing in the way of new housing, Marin is growing. Critics are right that Marin can’t solve the region’s housing crisis on its own, but it also can’t ignore the fast-brewing problems within its own borders. Rapid population growth without housing only tightens the screws.

While anti-development activists in other suburbs have proven to be reticent to allow second units, those in Marin have been veritable boosters of the idea. That opens up the potential for another 66,000 homes without altering the feel or character of host neighborhoods. We can’t ignore that potential, or the potential for proper infill housing, any longer.

Talk to your kids about cabs and transit

It’s high school graduation season, and that means the annual deluge of columns about how you should talk to your kids about drinking and driving. It’s a valuable reminder for parents – driving is the top cause of death for teenagers 16-19, after all – but inevitably the columns stop there. Keep your kids from drinking and, therefore, driving.

But there’s no better way to get home after a raucous night than to have someone else drive. Even if there is no drinking involved, drowsy driving is just as dangerous. Talk to your kids about transit and talk to them about cabs.


Kids and transit go together like peanut butter and jelly. Transit can be a tool for freedom for your kids long before they’re of a driving age, and you’ll rest easier knowing they are far safer on a bus or train – even with the creepers that sometimes share a ride with them – than on the road.

Get them a transit card. Though Clipper is the standard for much of the Bay Area’s transit, it might not be in your area. Fill whatever your local system takes with $50 and give it to your kid.

Go over the schedule. Every transit system is different. BART closes at midnight, but Muni has all-night service. Some systems’ routes end at 9, others after midnight. Make sure your graduate knows how to read a schedule, how to reschedule, how to use NextBus for the systems that use it, and how to use the 511.org phone app and website. (If you don’t know, 511.org has transit directions for every transit system in the Bay Area. It’s not as slick as Google Maps, but it’s more comprehensive.)

Go over the map. Reading transit maps is a skill, just like reading road maps. Plan out a route with them from their graduation party to home on the map and on their smart phone (if they have one).

Start them on transit now. If your high schooler is graduating this year, you don’t have a whole lot of time. Go do something cool with them by transit or send them out to a cool part of your area, like Fairfax in Marin, one Saturday. If they aren’t graduating yet, try to make transit part of their everyday life. A first ride on an unfamiliar transit system can be a bit disorienting, and it’s even worse when you’re intoxicated or exhausted.

The last thing you want your graduate to say to themselves is that it’s too much of a pain and just drive themselves. Get them over the hump in a good way.


Whether or not your graduate wants to take transit or can’t get home from late parties, teach them how to use a cab.

Make it easy. If you’re in the suburbs, program a local cab company phone number into your graduate’s phone. If you’re in the city, install Uber or Lyft. You want to make this a simple and normal process. If you’re really out there, they’ll need to call ahead. If your teen has a curfew, you can even call a cab company to have someone come so they’ll get home on time.

Make it free. Just like the no-questions-asked policy driving parents often have, make the cab free. If you have Uber or Lyft in your city, link the account to your credit card. If you don’t, tell them to get a cab receipt and you’ll reimburse the fare.

Talk to them, too, about splitting the fare with other people who are going in their direction. Cabs can be very reasonable if the fare is split 3 ways.

Make it familiar. Just like transit, cabs can be disorienting if you’ve never used one before. Take a trip in one with your graduate and make him or her make the payment for the trip back (though with you paying, of course).

It’s about empowerment

It’s extremely important to let your kids know it’s not safe to drink and drive, but that’s not enough. Give them the tools and know-how to get them home safe every time, even if they do something stupid. When you’ve just had a fight just before a party, they may not want to call you. When their designated driver suddenly isn’t available, they might not be able to get home without driving themselves. When they get to college, they won’t have you there to give them a ride.

Even if transit or cabs are just lifelines in your area, you’ll empower them to make their own choices. For now, if they don’t have their own car, this will give them the opportunity to be able to get around without a family car.

Finally, though they might love to drive, teaching them options will allow them to understand that that is a choice, not a requirement, of living in a place.

Rider alleges staff issues at GGT will mean increasingly unreliable service

The other day on Twitter, Danny Skarka, a regular rider of GGT’s commuter route 54 (Novato), said his driver announced there was a looming driver shortage. The result, said the driver, will be unreliable service on the 54. Skarka followed up with a Google+ post, reproduced here in full:

This is what the driver announced this morning:

When the new schedule starts in June, our bus will not have a regular driver. Our bus, the 54, is considered “expendable” and when they are short drivers, our bus will be cancelled with no notice.

I felt sorry for the driver. The rider reaction was less than positive. The 54 has been plagued for some time. 

My assumption is not ALL 54s are expendable, but considering how full they get, canceling any one will cause a ripple effect of overcrowded buses. I have been on many 54s with standing room only. “Bus Surfing” at 60 mph and no seat belt. 

They are often short drivers. So this scenario will happen. I have already seem many cancelled 54s. 

Unfortunately GGT is not very tech. A Geo-aware mobile app (since we all have a smart phone on us ) where we can set what route we use would be wonderful. It could give us updates. We could refresh Clipper Cards much more easily without the delay seen now using the website. In other cities, the bus location shows up on maps so you can tell if you need to run to a stop to meet a bus. Tag data could tell us if a bus was full. Much can be approved. 

I don’t know the agencies challenges so it’s not fair to be overly critical. However, the same agency is raising bridge tolls, and charging for parking at ferries. So non-drivers are stuck with the monopoly.

I am considering starting a #MissingBus hash on Twitter for passengers to help each other. Something easily followed and contributed to. 

Comments please.

If true, this is a disturbing lack of regard for GGT’s customers and GGT’s mission. Reliable bus service is vital to a commuter. What will someone do if they usually take the last 54 and it never shows up?

I have an email out to Golden Gate Transit to find out how true Skarka’s assertions might be and to get some information on staffing and service hours in the June schedule and I will update if I get any more information.

Planning for Reality check: Larkspur conspiracies

Image from Planning for Reality

An apropos image from Planning for Reality

The Larkspur Landing Station Area Plan (SAP) is all the rage nowadays, and for good reason. People apparently don’t want to see any development or any changes to their community, and it looks like the development aspects of the plan are heading to the dustbin.

But there’s a myth Richard Hall, a leader in anti-development circles and writer of Planning for Reality, told me about yesterday on the IJ. He said the Larkspur SAP was necessary so SMART would get funding. Let’s fact-check this gem.

The claim

Under the Metroplitan Planning Commision’s (MTC) Resolution 3434, a commuter rail line like SMART can only get regional funding if it has an average of 2,200 housing units with a half-mile radius of its stations. MTC is in charge of dispersing regional funding from a variety of sources, and it’s entirely in its prerogative to disperse funds how it sees fit. Resolution 3434 is intended to promote transit-oriented development around train stations to limit sprawl out into the East Bay hills, farms, or elsewhere far from anything.

SMART, Hall claims, does not meet this requirement and needed to add 920 housing units around Larkspur Landing to qualify for MTC funding. Somehow Larkspur got involved, developed the plan, and now we’re headed for a train wreck of a plan.

The reality

There are a number of problems with this claim, highest on the list being that SMART has already qualified for regional funding under Resolution 3434. In fact, it was determined 4 years ago, in December, 2010, that SMART qualified for regional funding. SMART has since received funding and is using it to fund construction.

The finding was that SMART, excluding Corona Road and Novato North stations, had 15,251 housing units built or planned within a half-mile radius of its 7 planned stations. This is 99 percent of the required 15,400 units, and it was deemed sufficient.

Including Corona Road and Guernville Road, which was not the chosen plan MTC approved, there were 17,295 housing units out of 17,600 needed. It’s close, but not quite there.

Let’s say nothing happens in Larkspur except for a new station is built there. Let’s also say the planned Sonoma County Airport station is built and that SMART decides to open Corona Road. This means SMART will have 12 stations on tap, which means it needs at least 26,400 housing units within a half mile of its collection of stations.

Since I can’t find data on housing around either Novato North or the Sonoma County Airport, I’m going to say those have 0 units, just for the sake of argument. Adding up all the rest of the existing housing units gets us 19,796 housing units, well short of our needed 26,400.

However, San Rafael, Santa Rosa, and Petaluma have all completed station area plans. San Rafael plans for 272 more units downtown. Petaluma plans for 1,716 more units downtown and 523 more around its northern station. Santa Rosa plans for another 3,409 units around its downtown station and 2,680 around its northern station. This gets us to 28,396 total units, or 107 percent the needed amount.

A Rohnert Park SAP is also in the works, but it hasn’t been completed yet.

If there is a conspiracy afoot to get SMART to qualify for more regional funding through a Larkspur SAP, the conspirators are really bad at math. But if the author of Planning for Reality, a computer programmer, is similarly bad at math, perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on them.

In sum: Hall’s claim is false.

What if there were no SAPs at all?

It’s important to note here that, when presented with this information, Hall shifted his tune both in email and online, choosing to criticize Sonoma for implementing SAPs and saying it was part of a bigger conspiracy for regional funding for construction. He also asked whether Larkspur Landing could have been included if no SAPs had been passed.

This question poses a highly improbable set of circumstances. First, Sonoma cities actually want to change, Rohnert Park especially. They believe their future lies in their downtowns, in the kind of places that Marin takes for granted. It is extremely likely they would have planned around their stations even if there were no MTC grant money, and likely would have planned even if SMART never existed.

Second, it was Larkspur, not SMART, that applied for SAP grant money. Anti-development activists believe MTC and SMART colluded to pressure Larkspur into taking that money against their will years before the Larkspur Landing station seemed possible. This was, they claim, to allow SMART to qualify for regional funding, even though it had already qualified for said funding.

But let’s indulge them. Adding Larkspur Landing would have dropped the number of housing units from 99 percent of qualifying to 94 percent. However, as link of regional significance, it would be extremely unlikely that MTC would have allowed this to disqualify SMART. It was still largely in line with Resolution 3434, and there would have been strong pressure to keep the funding.

But there were SAPs passed, and SMART is going to open with 10 stations, not 7. It can easily add Corona Road for 11, and it looks like Larkspur Landing will open in 2017 for 12 stations. But perhaps we should forgive SMART for building itself. After all, it was voters - a more insidious force than any regional body - who put them up to it.

New coalition has a more livable Marin as its mission

Since starting this blog in 2011, the debate around urban issues has exploded, and not in a good way. Once the Santa Rosa Tea Party crashed our Plan Bay Area meetings and lit a fire under anti-development activists – liberal, libertarian, and conservative alike, many of whom recoil at being associated with the Tea Party – we’ve gone from name-calling to dirty politics to anger and back again.

Not since the fight over whether to preserve West Marin has the tenor of debate been so high and the emotions so strong.

While our debate ramped up, the housing crisis in San Francisco continued to spill over the Bridge and into our tree-lined streets. Rents have skyrocketed and the last vestiges of Marin’s blue-collar hippie past are finally starting to be pushed out entirely.

Traffic’s bad, and it will only get worse as richer people replace Marin’s not-so-rich. Sprawl beyond Marin’s borders will only continue as the county becomes even more of a commuter destination.

The well-organized progressive lobby has only existed in name. It has the institutions but not the activists. It has lacked the votes to see through plans that had been in the making for years or to keep plans passed with full community support just a few years ago.

Some groups advocate for bikes, others advocate for affordable housing, still others open space, and yet more transit. Thanks in part to a lack of cooperation, these groups’ messages have been smothered beneath the constant refrain of No.

Not that the voices of No have a majority – far from it. The most recent survey on the subject found Marin to be strongly in support of transit-oriented development and more in favor of affordable housing than opposed, as long as it fits with Marin’s character.

It’s high time for a new coalition, then, to give this silent majority voice and bring together those diverse groups who do support a progressive vision of Marin County.

Last week, the Coalition for a Livable Marin (CALM), an organization with precisely that goal in mind, announced its formation. I’m privileged serve this group on its steering committee as one voice among many. Our mission is “to create and maintain the vibrant, inclusive, and sustainable communities that, in combination with our magnificent open space, make Marin such a great place.”

We believe that the guiding light for Marin’s human habitat lies in its traditional town centers, warm and welcoming places built around transit, bikes, and people on foot. These places are at the heart of Marin’s culture and community, and our mission and actions flow out of our commitment to those places.

From the press release:

CALM’s starting coalition includes Friends of SMART, League of Women Voters of Marin County, Marin County Bicycle Coalition, Sustainable Corte Madera, Sustainable San Rafael, and TRANSDEF. This list is growing as the coalition welcomes others who are just as passionate about Marin’s traditional town centers.

I’d also like to add The Greater Marin to that list.

When I started starting this blog, my aim was to find the ways Marin has done it right and figure out how to apply those lessons to Washington, DC. As it turns out, I’ve spent nearly all my time trying to show how Marin can learn its own lessons and rebutting the critics who said such lessons were not applicable to our suburban character. It turns out I was not alone in my admiration for Marin’s traditions. Again from the press release:

CALM is interested in building on the strong base of support for biking, transit, and affordable housing. It points to surveys that show nearly 60% of Marinites support building transit-oriented housing, and that a strong plurality of people support multi-family housing in the county (40 percent vs. 31 percent). Marin residents are also frequent users of public transit, with 1 in 4 of Marin’s commuters to San Francisco taking Golden Gate Transit.

I’m excited to serve alongside some of Marin’s most experienced and knowledgeable activists on the CALM steering committee and alongside you as a volunteer. The path ahead is rough - I have every confidence that this coalition will come under fire for a host of reasons - but the county that invented the mountain bike has never shied from rough paths before and neither will we.

Take a look at our website and add your voice to the cause of maintaining Marin’s traditional patterns of development. Join us today.


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