Durable Growth, Environment, Transportation

Marin environmentalism is at odds with itself

Wrong Way

by jonathan_moreau, on Flickr

Marin’s environmentalists recently released the 2013 version of Community Marin (PDF), an outline of priorities for how to conserve Marin County’s character and environment while still addressing the challenges of commuting and growth.

Though the plan makes bold recommendations for development and transportation – most prominently restrictions on greenfield development and a maximum house size – the plan’s recommendations are contradictory. It talks about infill development but demands onerous environmental and affordability requirements that make it even less likely to appear than now. And, while it talks about better transit, the plan maintains the status quo of car dominance: parking minimums, weighing transportation projects based on congestion relief, and HOV lanes on Highway 101.

Ultimately, the plan boils down to the old environmentalism that believes open space should be preserved, driving should be accommodated, tall buildings are bad for the environment, and housing markets are a myth. This has been the dominant strain of belief in Marin for at least 30 years, and Community Marin thinks that’s just fine.

The good

A fundamental environmental problem in Marin County today is the possibility of greenfield development, or development where there has never been development before. This kind of zoning is held out from Marin’s years of sprawl, especially the 1980s. That hundreds of homes could be built on Grady Ranch is indicative of this problem. Community Marin is right to call for a harder growth boundary to prevent this kind of sprawl from continuing.

In its place, Community Marin wants more infill housing, especially around downtown San Rafael but also around the Civic Center and Novato North stations.

The transportation chapter of the plan calls for all transportation projects to take climate change into account. Aggressive transportation demand management policies, like subsidized bus passes, car sharing, and Class I bicycle lanes (cycletracks), would tackle congestion.

The bad

Despite the call for more infill development, Community Marin goes out of its way to ensure any development will only be possible with considerable government largesse. Among the restrictions for housing development are 20 percent of most developed units be affordable housing; mandated use of green materials; examination of environmental impacts of development; no homes above 3,500 square feet; no development in the 100-year floodplain; full environmental review; full design review; parking minimums; and a hard 3-story height limit on most buildings. Though some of these restrictions could be mitigated by lifting restrictions on density or unit size, Community Marin is silent on these issues.

Commercial development, on top of those building and environmental restrictions, would need to pay a commercial impact fee, which compensates the county in full for the cost to build enough homes to house their employees. That means that for, say, every 600 square feet of retail space built, a commercial developer would need to provide enough money to the county to build a new affordable housing unit.

These restrictions are tantamount to a moratorium on for-profit development in Marin and would drive the cost of housing ever higher. Problems of affordable housing and senior housing would not be resolved. Even senior housing, if there were staff, would need to pay that commercial impact fee.

The only way to solve the problem of affordable housing is to allow the market to correct itself and to focus regulations on form rather than density. The recommendations from Community Marin for tighter zoning will push development into other counties even further from jobs. If Community Marin wants infill development, they need make it easier, not harder, for private entities to build.

The ugly

There aren’t new ideas in this plan to reshape how Marinites get around. Quite the opposite: biking, walking, and transit are seen as tools to address concerns of traffic congestion (as measured by the flawed level-of-service metric) and sufficient parking, not necessarily as transportation modes in themselves. Despite good suggestions – traffic calming, prioritizing Class I bicycle lanes – the overall push is to relieve congestion and improve safety, is often an excuse to remove pedestrians and bikes from ever-faster roads.

Take recommendation 8.14, which wants safer highway interchanges for all modes by improving traffic flow. That means higher speeds at interchanges, which means capacity improvements that will induce more driving, the least safe mode of transportation. Though the interchange will be safer, the population will be more exposed to crashes and death by automobile.

Most glaring are recommendations that encourage parking minimums, the steroids of automobility. Parking minimums externalize the cost of parking to the community at large, allowing the actual users of parking to get away with it for free or nearly for free. When combined with recommendations that level-of-service not be harmed by development, it’s a recipe for widened roads and intersections, which in turn makes them less safe or welcoming for pedestrians and bicyclists.

When it comes to transit, a necessary prerequisite to improved service is a moratorium on capacity improvements. Transit and cars are in competition with one another. Investments in roads and parking mean lower ridership on transit and more traffic on roads. Yet the plan seems ignorant of this well-understood law of transportation planning and calls for more road investment under the guise of “congestion relief”. A recommendation for a more extensive bus network rings hollow when another recommendation will suck ridership from the network that already exists.

If we want to decrease the mode share of cars and decrease how many miles we travel, we need to make a strategic investment in transit and bicycling alone, with roads restricted to maintenance funding.

There are other recommendations that betray a belief that Marin cannot be anything other than car-oriented. Recommendation 8.5 calls for more parking and more park & rides. Recommendation 8.11 supports the ludicrously expensive Novato Narrows project and a new interchange to service the Redwood Landfill, which will eventually close. Perhaps the framers of Community Marin don’t want to rock the boat too much, but it is bizarre to see environmentalists arguing for more cars. Given the strength of their lobby in Marin, they should throw their weight behind MCBC and urbanists to fight for fewer cars and less driving.

In all, Community Marin does well when discussing preservation concerns but falls flat when entering the realms of transportation and development. I suspect the framers of Community Marin share much in common with urbanists – the desire for strong towns and town character, a desire for affordable housing, a desire for open spaces and clean air – but they have gone about their recommendations in a way that does not reflect the proven best practices to achieve those ends. Indeed, their recommendations are often at odds with their stated ends.

Marin’s governments need to study these recommendations carefully before jumping onboard. If they’re serious about reducing CO2 emissions, about creating a more equitable housing market, about moving beyond the automobile, about investing in transit and bicycling and downtowns, this is not the blueprint to use.

This post is cross-posted with The Greater Marin.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

2 comments to Marin environmentalism is at odds with itself

  • Thomas

    Marinites are all too often hypocrites. They love progressive ideals in theory, but ask them to make any changes in their precious community and they cause an uproar.
    Diversity is just a word to them.

  • voltairesmistress

    The Marin plan is not environmentalism; rather, it is landscape conservation without respect for human needs. The irony is that in conserving the past landscape without adapting to population pressure, it excludes anyone in the future but the lucky or the rich. It thereby does not conserve the past but creates a new social environment in the same physical setting.

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