A Lesson in Overreaction

There’s an old saying: “Think local, act global.”  It’s a pithy reminder that everything we do, from our brand of toilet paper to how we structure our cities, effects everyone else.

I think someone forgot to tell Corte Madera that.

This past Tuesday, Corte Madera voted to quit ABAG, effective July, 2013.  The Council voted out of frustration at housing mandates it says are killing the town’s character, out of anger at Plan Bay Area, and out of a belief that Corte Madera is perfect.  Yet its actions will have no effect on any of the issues at stake in this debate and will hinder the town’s capacity to shape those issues.

Corte Madera will still need to zone for more housing.  Although ABAG is the administrator of housing requirements for this region, the mandate to zone comes from the state government.  By leaving ABAG, Corte Madera will receive its mandates directly from Sacramento, exposing it to the whim of a truly unelected and unaccountable body.  Within ABAG, Corte Madera had a voice in the association’s General Assembly.  It could contest mandates, allocation formulae, assumptions, and more.  Although staff has a major role to play in governments across the region, at least ABAG staff worked for local elected officials and were answerable to them.

Beyond ABAG, Corte Madera is still a part of the other three regional organizations – Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the Bay Coastal Development Commission – which are all working on Plan Bay Area.  Indeed, Corte Madera will be materially affected by decisions made by these agencies but will lack any voice at the proceedings, as it has no representative on any of their boards.

If Corte Madera is subject to SB375, it will need to work directly with staff at each of those regional agencies to formulate its greenhouse gas reduction plans, using up valuable regional and town staff time simply to duplicate efforts and wasting taxpayer money to do so.

Not that any of this will matter for a while.  Although details are a bit sketchy, it seems as though Corte Madera will still be subject to ABAG mandates for the upcoming housing needs allocation.  If you listened to media reports you’d never know it, but there will be no material difference to Corte Madera as a result of these actions.  The town will still be subject to Plan Bay Area and will still receive housing allocations from ABAG until the following allocation in 2020.

The straw that broke this camel’s back were preliminary draft growth projections being used in Plan Bay Area’s discussion phase.  They were too high, a problem brought up with force at Tuesday’s council meeting, but ABAG heard the voice of the town and others and will revise its numbers significantly downward in the next draft.  Those original numbers were released with no methodology, another complaint of Corte Maderans, but ABAG will release its second draft methodology this month.  Housing allocation numbers for the next cycle haven’t even been drafted yet, but they were brought up time and again as though the town already knew it would need to zone for hundreds of new units.  These are fake problems ginned up by Corte Madera’s ABAG representative, Councilmember Carla Condon, who should be fighting within the system rather than railing against it.

So what did Corte Madera get with its resolution on Tuesday?  Headlines, extra costs, and a muted voice.  Corte Madera will still receive housing allocations from ABAG in 2013 and the state in 2020, it will still be subject to Plan Bay Area, it will still be under regional organizations, but it has forfeited its voice in any of these decisions and has thrust upon its staff state-mandated planning requirements currently performed by ABAG.  The council gets to look like a hero to the county’s paper progressives, but its petulant overreaction to nonexistent problems will only compound the town’s woes.

Advertisements

Leaving ABAG Would Be a Mistake

Image from the Town of Corte Madera

Over the last year, rage against the Bay Area’s alphabet soup of regional authorities has simmered just below the surface of Marin politics.  Although the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) got its share of hate for banning fires over Christmas and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) caught flack for housing mandates around SMART, it was the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and its Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) process that drew the most fire by forcing localities to zone for more housing.  Marinites think their cities are already built out and so were incensed that an unelected agency could tell them to zone for more development.  The frustration has finally boiled over in Corte Madera, and there’s a push for the town to leave ABAG.  It would be a mistake if it did.

Background: The State of Local Control

The RHNA process comes once every seven years, driven by a state mandate to accommodate affordable housing within the state’s regions.  Sacramento directs regional agencies – ABAG in the Bay Area, SANDAG in San Diego – to assess housing needs in the area and assign a number of housing units regional towns, cities, and counties must zone for.  Marin has had trouble keeping up with the RHNA cycle and only now are the last towns finishing their housing plans.  Unfortunately, they took so long to finish that the next RHNA cycle is about to begin, dropping voters with more homes to zone for just as they figured out how to zone for the last bunch.

This cycle will be different.  ABAG is working with MTC, BAAQMD, and the Bay Coastal Development Commission (BCDC) to develop a regional Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS), tying housing allocations to transportation, air quality, and water quality.  This unprecedented level of regional coordination means communities will need to work within the still-incomplete SCS or face financial penalties, as the regional agencies control and disburse a great deal of federal and state funds.  After going through a round of grueling negotiations over the last cycle’s allocations and angst over the loss of local control, the SCS is just one more thing for local politicians to worry about.

Pulling Out

Into this walked Corte Madera’s ABAG representative, Councilwoman Carla Condon.  For months she has argued that the association is trampling local rights, pursuing a social engineering project to make Corte Madera look like Oakland.  Mayor Bob Ravasio concurs, and would rather receive housing allocations directly from Sacramento.

I’m on record against these allocations – they distort the housing market and do rob cities of local control.  Yet I also know these allocations can do a great deal of good.  The densities mandated are not excessively high, and are met or exceeded in many parts of Marin, and they can give municipal councils an excuse to add housing near transit and historic downtowns.

Withdrawing from ABAG, as Corte Madera is considering, would not change either of those realities.  By dealing directly with the state, Corte Madera would be setting itself up to deal with a bigger bureaucracy with less chance of coming out on top.  As well, pulling out of ABAG could create a logistical mess for Corte Madera at other regional agencies, as transportation funding and support will be tied to the RHNA process, making even more work for town staff to sort out the inconsistencies with every other government in the region.

Far better would be for Corte Madera to spearhead a Marin County housing subregion.  ABAG allows localities to create subregions that can assign their own affordable housing needs.  Although ABAG still gives the subregion a total number of units, the subregion can assign those units however it likes.  A hypothetical Marin subregion would reestablish a modicum of local control over the allocations, allowing amenable cities, like Mill Valley or San Rafael, to take more units while others, like Corte Madera or Novato, would receive fewer.  Allocation would happen through the Marin County Council of Mayors and Councilmembers, so all localities would have a say in how allocations are made.

Alas, such a subregion would apply not to this coming RHNA cycle but the next, as the deadline for subregional formation passed last March.  As well, it’s unlikely Corte Madera would be able to pull out of ABAG for this coming cycle either, meaning any reform will need to come from within ABAG or be in preparation for the rather distant future.  Given the major bureaucratic reforms coming with One Bay Area, it’s too soon to say if the regional agencies will be too difficult for Marinites to handle.  In the interim, Councilwoman Condon should focus more on shaping the final RHNA numbers to Corte Madera’s liking than trying to pull the city out of the ABAG altogether.