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.

About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

15 Responses to Planning for Reality check: Larkspur conspiracies

  1. rihallix says:

    It’s quite amazing how you have yet again misconstrued circumstances and ultimately served to spread myths Here is the exact *question* that I sent you:

    “So if the 2,200 units per stop has been met why are Linda Jackson [of TAM] and MTC being evasive [stating whether Larkspur needs some of the 920 units for SMART to qualify for funding]? ”

    Instead of answering, you twisted my question into an assertion – an assertion that I am still validating – which was the purpose of my email to you.


    As detailed in my email exchange with you, what is beyond doubt is that the funding for Station Area Plans by MTC ($480k of the $600k in the case of SMART) primarily has been pushing for more housing within 1/2 mile of stations to drive ridership. Like a venture capitalist MTC invests likely expecting some SAPs to be “hits” driving significant additional housing and some to be “duds” like the Civic Center SAP which tried to push for 1,414 units but was exposed as disingenuously exceeding the city of San Rafael’s own general plan that said a larger area than that covered by the SAP could only accommodate 620 more units.


    This MTC document lays out the intent of MTC’s funding of SAP grants, these have little to do with addressing Larkpur’s traffic and circulation complaints which are an afterthought to MTC that is funding the project and fixated on housing:

    “Each proposed physical transit extension project seeking funding through Resolution 3434 must demonstrate that the thresholds for the corridor are met through existing development and adopted station area plans that commit local jurisdictions to a level of housing that meets the threshold. This requirement may be met by existing station area plans accompanied by appropriate zoning and implementation mechanisms. If new station area plans are needed to meet the corridor threshold, MTC will assist in funding the plans.”


  2. Pingback: Records Request Revelations: The Larkspur SAP | Planning for Reality

  3. Perry. L. says:

    I have lived in Marin & Sonoma Counties all my life 53 years, Novato is and has been my home for a long time.
    I got home this AM from a night job and picked up the I.J. as I am following “Density” issue and saw Mr Edmunsons comments and something got my attention the use of the word “misinformation” used by Mr Edmunson
    saying that there was a lot of it (misinformation) being spread and then I read his quote about
    the Santa Rosa Tea party crashed the meeting and lit fires-

    What a brilliant use of misinformation used in a way that may mislead readers and gain support for the “Density” crew-

    So what Mr Edmunson is wanting folks to think is some uninvited “Tea Party” folks from Santa Rosa went into a meeting or “crashed” and then took it over and just started talking about this serious issue in Marin and that they (Tea Party) really caused some problems via there spreading “misinformation”-

    Mr Edmunson offers no specifics about what was said-
    how do you know what county people live in-
    did these people where a “Tea Party” ID card-?

    I maybe wrong about this one but is that a photo of you outside by a hill?
    Then another photo of you with a beard and glasses looking a bit older?
    Also you don’t even live in Marin any longer and I noticed on your Blog
    that you are Advertising yourself to do consulting work-

    I don’t mean to be rude but you claim you are just trying to “help”
    and the name “CALM” really makes it sound like you are doing
    just that “helping”

    Am I wrong here does anyone see how you could very possibly be
    the one spreading misinformation and trying to give yourself credibility
    with your power words like crashing,Tea Party,helping and the name of your
    blog > CALM

    Why would someone who lives in another state be so preoccupied with SMART
    in Marin County?

    Again not trying to be rude Mr Edmunson but have to agree with “rihallix”-


    Perry L

    • rihallix says:

      Perry – you bring up some excellent points. Throwing the tea party into the mix is not helpful and based on the opposition in Marin is misinformation.

    • Oh no, I didn’t mean to say that the Tea Party took over this serious issue, only that they lit a fire under people of all political stripes, some of whom would (and do) take serious offense at being called tea partiers, because they aren’t. I wrote that it was the Santa Rosa Tea Party because that organization did most of the organizing to get people out at Plan Bay Area meetings to be disruptive. I was simply trying to relay the history; I apologize for any confusion in that regard.

      My profile photo here and the one used by the IJ was taken on Red Hill from about two years ago. I’m unsure which one you’re talking about with the tie, though. Got a link?

      Also, my blog is not the same as CALM. Despite how it seemed in the IJ, CALM is self-led. I’m not the leader by any stretch, and this blog is not representative of CALM’s policies.

      I lived in Marin for 24 years, from birth, and my whole family lives there: parents, sister, nephew, brother-in-law. As I said in the IJ, Marin is in my blood, and I can’t simply leave it behind. Despite the confusion for the consulting ad – which is long overdue to be taken down – I’m strictly a volunteer. I get no pay, no compensation, nothing from anyone for my blog or for serving on the CALM steering committee.

      • rihallix says:

        In Marin the tea party did nothing of significance that I am aware of. (But please feel free to correct me). Isn’t this blog and CALM both specifically about Marin?

        Throwing the tea party into a conversation about opposition to fast growth in Marin is misappropriation and misdirection. I Googled “Marin Tea Party” and checked the .com and .org domains there is no such organization.

        CALM injecting the tea party into an IJ article about housing opposition in Marin misconstrues events and your opposition. There has been a very sizable grass roots opposition to fast growth. Typically this opposition is made up of Democrats with a sprinkling of Republicans. Opposition in significant numbers has even occurred in Fairfax – one of the most progressive, and left-leaning towns in the entire county (if not California).

    • Michael Smith says:

      Our local Nextdoor website has been completely usurped by a group of people who spew Tea Party rhetoric. It’s also well known that these movements against density were started by the Tea Party years ago. It’s very interesting to hear people on our neighbourhood website use the exact catch phrases, buzzwords and recite word for word passages found on Tea Party/type websites. When asked if they are Tea Party members they say no and act all aghast. I think we’ve got a lot of people out there that think that because they are keeping their names off the official Tea Party membership roles they are able to deflect and deny their affiliations but still spread “the word”. I think they do so because they know that at least in Marin, the population is classy,sophisticated, educated, liberal and would be embarrassed to be associated with these people thus ignore them. This underbelly of Marin is definitely trying to infilitrate Marin politics so I’d have no doubt that a more rural area like Sonoma would have a strong element of this as rural areas do seem to be the most attractive to this kind of mindset. I think the “smells like, tastes like, looks like” rule definitely applies when identifying these people.

      • rihallix says:

        This is completely irrelevant and entirely speculative. It contains absolutely no specifics whatsoever but makes accusations about people’s character. It is not a constructive or a civil comment.

        Dave – Michael’s post falls awry of your discussion comments – can we assume that you will be applying the rules to him just as you have done to others?

      • Franz Listen says:

        There’s an anti-development current in Marin County politics that long pre-dates the Tea Party It’s pretty common to affluent communities and tied to a fear that change can only make a good place worse. You can find similar sentiments in upscale, progressive places like Palo Alto or Santa Monica. In addition, some of the anti-development attitude in Marin is connected to an older, “no growth” environmental left, which is especially strong here.

        Having said this, Michael is right that there is also a clear conservative/libertarian thread on one side of Marin’s planning and development debates – whether we want to specifically call it “Tea Party” or not. Two very non-speculative examples include: the Marin GOP broadside against transit and housing which is still featured as a rallying cry on the party’s website and… the invitation of CATO Institute’s Randall O’Toole to Marin attack regional planning and local transit plans. There are plenty of other examples.

        So…labeling all the opponents of smart growth planning and development “tea partiers” is indeed inaccurate. However, it’s misleading and disingenuous to say that conservative (and even fringe conservative) rhetoric and themes are not featured prominently in the planning conversation (Agenda 21? anybody), or that populist conservatives are not a part of the anti-development coalition in Marin.

        Some of the arguments from this populist conservative crowd have my sympathies. Others are absolute balderdash. What I find odd, though, is how upset people who put forth conservative/libertarian/tea party talking points get when someone points out their obvious ideological source. Methinks they doth protest too much.

  4. Franz Listen says:

    It’s important to note that the housing requirements in MTC’s Resolution 3434 also apply to bus projects. The SMART opponents always leave this key fact out. It’s simply too enticing for them to use the potent fear of development as an argument against the train. Some have implied that if only the SMART project had been a bus service instead, it wouldn’t be subject to MTC’s meddling and housing boosterism. That’s not necessarily true. A major new bus project in Marin and Sonoma may well have also been a Resolution 3434 project. And…. the housing unit threshold for bus projects is even higher – 2,750 around every bus stop vs. 2,200 for commuter rail station areas.

    MTC isn’t really pushing Station Area Plans to help drive SMART ridership. A couple of new housing projects here and there near stations is only going to have a marginal effect on ridership and MTC knows that. Moreover, MTC’s original threat to cut off all discretionary funding to SMART if housing thresholds were not met by Marin and Sonoma jurisdictions didn’t benefit SMART – it just added a risk.

    The purpose of the Station Area Plans is to facilitate housing development – plain and simple. This is one of MTC/ABAG’s chief policy goals (They ascribe to some facile ideas about housing development solving an enormous variety of public ills beyond just moderating housing prices). Secondarily, the SAPs are intended to drive the development of affordable housing – which is another major MTC/ABAG goal. This is why MTC gives a “bonus” in the housing count for affordable housing. In reality, there is little empirical evidence that those living in subsidized housing are much morely likely to ride a train than those paying market rate rents. Keep in mind that jobs don’t could toward the MTC threshold, either. If San Rafael added all the jobs of lower Manhattan it would surely help SMART, but it apparently wouldn’t impress MTC.

    The SAPs are not about MTC wanting to get good performance out of thier transit investments like a venture capitalist (even though they have that veneer and even though MTC sometimes tries to explain them on these grounds). For starters – MTC isn’t putting in all that much regional money into SMART. This is mainly our local investment. Moreover, if MTC were really trying to protect their transportation investments, they could evaluate them (and threaten to cut off funds) based on a cost-benefit analysis like the federal government does. Housing units counts in stations areas, however, are a very weak proxy for cost-effectiveness of a transit system. But again, the goal is not transit performance – its housing development (preferably subsidized).

    If there is a conspiracy here its not MTC strong-arming local jurisdictions to benefit SMART. Rather, its MTC using the presence of a new transit project, the cultural currency of TOD, and its control over some transportion funds to try to leverage more housing development. Here’s the rub, though…. Dave is right that in the absence of MTC’s Reso 3434 and money for SAPs, most local jurisdictions would probaly be doing similar planning anyway. And pretty much all of them would be focusing possible new development in downtowns and around station areas. This leads to an inevitable conclusion – that MTC isn’t having much (or any) affect on land use planning in Marin or Sonoma through the SMART project. That leads us to another conclusion – that MTC and ABAG’s policy tools (like its TOD Policy) are often nothing but a whole lot of noise that serve mainly to create unecessary complexity and public confusion.

    • rihallix says:

      @Franz – as usual great perspective. I’m enlightened by how you present the case that this wasn’t so much about benefiting SMART, but MTC plain and simple wanting to build houses – as if this is somehow the answer to all evils. It’s disconcerting that there’s no jobs component.

      Regarding your assertion: “the housing requirements in MTC’s Resolution 3434 also apply to bus projects…Some have implied that if only the SMART project had been a bus service instead, it wouldn’t be subject to MTC’s meddling and housing boosterism. That’s not necessarily true. A major new bus project in Marin and Sonoma may well have also been a Resolution 3434 project.”

      Let’s not mix together “a bus service” such as more express buses and “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) which is the dedicated guideway model that MTC Resolution 3434 is really talking about. 3434 has a higher threshold for BRT – 2,750 units compared to commuter rails 2,200.

      Bus Rapid Transit is not an inexpensive additional of an express (or local) bus route. It’s a major undertaking:

      It involves:
      – special dedicated bus lanes for a significant part of the journey
      – alignment in the center of the road (to avoid typical curb-side delays)
      – stations with off-board fare collection (to reduce boarding and alighting delay related to paying the driver)
      – station platforms level with the bus floor (to reduce boarding and alighting delay caused by steps)
      – bus priority at intersections (to avoid intersection signal delay)

      I understand that they considered a BRT system in San Fernando. Ultimately the more expensive and disruptive BRT heavy system (with a dedicated guideway) ended up taking 44 minutes on average and a BRT “lite” system (without dedicated lanes) was 38 minutes.

      The concern with dedicated bus lanes is that those lanes could have been additional car lanes that carried an exponentially greater number of people. Cars remain the primary mode of transportation in suburban and rural areas of Marin. Suppressing cars by diverting efforts to dedicated bus lanes in effect suppresses economic growth.

      Ultimately we seem to be on similar pages, you make a good case that MTCs drive is even more nakedly about development and less about SMART.

      • Franz Listen says:

        Yep…and I say stuff this as somebody who is generally more on the pro-development side (at least for Marin anyway) and who is sympathetic to much of what CALM is about. I would just rather have an honest debate and lose, than to have things that I support happen because of some sort of imposition from a distant (and some cases, unelected) layer of government. The MTC/ABAG carrot-and-stick games to drive housing development are too shadowy, too confusing, and too intellectually dishonest for my taste.

        Plus, how effective are they anyway? This piece by Dave is yet another in which he tries to reassure scared Marinites that something coming down from on high (Reso 3434, PDAs, etc) is actually not a big deal and is kind of a sideshow. I think he’s pretty much right. But…. then what is the value in these regional carrots and stickes exactly? They don’t seem to accomplish much vs. what would happen in their absense. So at best they are ineffectual, while also creating a local backlash. And at worst, they do impose certain obligations and “strings attached” that people are often unaware of. Sometimes, it’s not clear whether there are strings at all – something that you, Richard, aptly called the “twilight zone”. What is the benefit to the region of confusing the heck out of citizens and local governments and making people like Paul Jensen do big research projects to try to figure out what PDAs do or don’t require?

        As to whether a complex new express bus project would have been put into the Reso 3434 basket a few years ago – who knows. I do know, however, that MTC/ABAG are constantly looking for some type (any type) of nexus to try to push housing development.

        • rihallix says:

          Franz. I have to agree that we need an honest dialog based on discussion of facts.

          Regarding Reso 3434 I disagree that it’s not a big deal and a sideshow. Many homeowners such as myself spent an inordinate amount of time and energy having to fight against PDAs, RHNA driven Housing Elements and SAPs funded by resolution 3434 that were clearly on track otherwise to have widespread impact:
          – WinCup
          – doubling the number of houses around Civic Center, yet delivering a paltry amount of transportation funding
          – now Larkspur

          If we could have a with debate without regional and state interference, an honest debate at the local level we could get this resolved much more easily and far more effectively. You forget that there are other factors at play like the “go along to get ahead” aspects of politicians progressing their careers.

          Ultimately this is resulting in urbanizing Marin (WinCup) – thanks to MTC and special interests like the ones behind CALM – urbanization efforts right now are frequently getting around our local defenses. And the local defenses are now demanding an incredible amount of time of homeowners with better things to be doing. With good local representation and with regional interference diminished we could all get on with our lives, and live in a Marin that retains it’s small town character, with a great transportation system to boot.

          • Franz Listen says:

            Richard –

            Reso 3434 is indeed a sideshow. The MTC TOD Policy within Reso 3434 has had no tangible impact on land use planning in Marin. That’s the policy that requires a certain number of housing units (on average) to be planned around SMART rail stations. Since MTC deemed this requirement met a few years ago, it hasn’t really been an issue. No new units need to be planned for SMART’s benefit, period. So, when someone gets upset about possible zoning changes and says, “I heard that all this is being driven by SMART”, its not true. That’s the whole (accurate) thrust of Dave’s piece, here.

            I don’t like RHNA but it’s not related to Reso 3434. As for WinCup, you might be able to blame some of that on RHNA, but it’s also not related to Reso 3434. Lastly, PDAs are an MTC/ABAG creation but they have nothing specifically to do with Reso 3434 either.

            Station Area Plans are indeed related to Reso 3434, and yes MTC undoubtedly wants cities to use them to consider more housing around transit stations. However,as Dave has mentioned, in the absence of this planning money from MTC, most jurisdictions would be doing this type of planning anyway. This is a critical point that I can’t emphasize enough.

            We both agree that the planning superstructure (SB 375, RHNA, PDAs, Reso 3434, ABAG, name your acronym) is very confusing to the point of being a problem. We also agree that some of the rhetoric that we hear from the state and regional agencies is intellectually flimsy.

            However, here’s where I part company with you. You seem to think that the default state of nature in Marin County is no new development, and if there were no pressure from outsiders in the form of PDAs and SAPs and the like, there would be nothing proposed to be built here.

            I think that this fails to consider that the principle agitator for development is the market itself. It also fails to consider that cities have existing general plans that allow for development and are often willing to modify their general plans to allow more in certain places – even when nobody is forcing them do that! They, and many residents, believe that some well-considered new development is not inconsistent with (and can actually help support) our small-town character.

            So, your local “defenses” against real estate development are not just attempting to counter outside influences, but are often trying to counter some serious local interests like: the marketplace, individual property rights, and even the community values and aspirations of many other residents. That’s the reality, even if it makes for a less convenient bogeyman.

          • rihallix says:

            Franz. I am absolutely not a “zero growth” person and have said as much on many occasions. I am for continued *measured* growth. Here in Civic Center 77 units are being added around the mall and a building that was commercial is being converted to residential. That’s great! I want to see more second units, more conversions – and lets divert the many subsidies and incentives pushing for new development of high density to these much less intrusive development formats.

            MTC Resolution 3434 and the SAP money has been a clear enabler, and combined with ABAG’s preposterous population growth forecast they have accelerated the entire thing into a flashpoint issue. 3434, SAPs and PDAs seek very defined concentrations around stations driving for housing. Without 3434 I seriously doubt anything like the Civic Center Station Area Plan would have been produced and arrived at pushing for 1,414 units, and rezoning Autodesk 3 story commercial buildings to be 5 story residential. I could have had 2 years of my life back. I wouldn’t be involved in this conversation. I’m near certain San Rafael would have sat tight with it’s General Plan.

            Without 3434, PDAs and SAPs this can be a local matter. We still have a separate issue with advisory committees disproportionately stacked with TOD and high density advocates who are out of alignment with residents, and got ahead of themselves.

            In effect this alphabet soup has created a Pearl Harbor of sorts – with SAPs awakening the mighty middle classes to meddling and scheming in a way that deviates with the expectations of residents around out of character buildings. The needle was pushed way too far on the growth side.

            Restated – we’re closer to agreement than you think.

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