Urban Growth Boundaries

Sprawl Brawl

Janet Orsi

Sprawl Buster: Christa Shaw of Greenbelt Alliance, standing near the Skyhawk project on Highway 12, has campaigned for urban growth boundaries.

Last year voters approved a series of landmark urban growth limits. More are on their way. But are UGBs really a magic bullet?

By Janet Wells

QUAIL RIDGE. Skyhawk. Pine Creek. Harvest Meadow. Sonoma County parks? Wineries? Restaurants? Nope. Housing subdivisions. Given the influx of cookie-cutter residential developments, big-box superstores, tacky strip malls, and seemingly endless miles of traffic congestion, those bucolic-sounding names offer a rather optimistic view of Sonoma County’s current state of development.

No doubt stellar views and wildlife still exist here, but quails in a walled Rohnert Park subdivision? It’s no secret that a growing population and burgeoning development have changed the face of Sonoma County. For many residents, it hasn’t been a change for the better. “You end up destroying what the housing projects are named after,” says Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie. “The original environment vanishes.”

A year ago, Mackenzie, along with a majority of Sonoma County voters, approved five unprecedented urban-boundary measures in Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, and unincorporated parts of the county, with the idea of containing development and the hope of recapturing the county’s pastoral heritage.

One year is hardly enough time to discern major quantitative or qualitative impacts. But that hasn’t stopped the UGB trend: On Jan. 6, voters in Windsor will decide whether to adopt a UGB, and the issue is at the forefront in Cotati, Petaluma, and Sonoma, as well as a half-dozen other Bay Area communities.

Proponents of UGBs–both environmentalists and homeowners–tout them as the way to protect open space and farmland, decrease traffic congestion, contain sprawling development, even help maintain air quality. Homebuilders and developers, on the other hand, call UGBs “Great Walls” or “Iron Curtains,” and say such growth limits will have the opposite effect, resulting in escalating housing prices, leapfrog development, and more commute nightmares as people, looking for affordable places to live, move farther and farther from their jobs.

At their most simplistic, UGBs sound like a great idea: Keep sprawl contained and encourage investment in the city core, where roads, sewers, schools, transportation, and police and fire services already exist. But do growth restrictions work?

There’s the rub. In between the polarized rhetoric lies the less tidy gray zone of UGBs: All of the above may happen or none of the above. One thing is certain: California’s newest planning tool is young and untested. “In the short term, growth boundaries may have the benefits the environmentalists say they will,” says Santa Rosa planner Jeff Schwob. “In the long term, no one knows.”

Even in Oregon, where all communities were mandated by the state nearly 20 years ago to implement UGBs, the results are inconclusive. Housing prices in Portland have skyrocketed–as they have in many cities without growth restrictions. Portland’s downtown has been lauded as a model for redevelopment, but traffic is becoming increasingly congested. And more tellingly, after 20 years, development is bursting the boundary at its seam. Will Portland extend the boundary to accommodate increased population or try to contain growth within the existing boundaries? It’s a question most of Sonoma County will face in 2016.

A YEAR AGO Sonoma County became the first in the nation to establish comprehensive growth boundaries by voter approval. Santa Rosa passed a 20-year boundary, as did Sebastopol, Healdsburg, and the county (Measure A decreed that the county establish a green belt around any incorporated city that adopted a UGB); Rohnert Park’s four-year boundary squeaked by with a 350-vote margin.

And Sonoma County wasn’t alone for long on the UGB bandwagon: San Jose, Morgan Hill, Cupertino, and Pleasanton adopted 20-year boundaries in 1996. Novato came into the fold on Nov. 4. The only city in Northern California where a UGB on the ballot faltered in November’s election was Fairfield in neighboring Solano County, where the measure failed to pass by just 48 of more than 6,000 votes.

“Sonoma County often seems pastoral, but it’s a very desirable place to live, and land is less expensive than in other places in the Bay Area. This place is a target for developers,” says Christa Shaw, North Bay field representative for the Greenbelt Alliance, a non-profit Bay Area land conservation group. “Urban growth boundaries finally give people a tool to say, ‘Enough is enough. This is the boundary for the next 20 years. Let’s live within it.'”

Northern California’s UGBs seem to pass handily at the ballot box, but the measures are far from a shoo-in. At the grassroots level, residents must gather thousands of signatures to place measures on the ballot. Builders and developers pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars for opposition campaigns. City councils grapple with the growth issue, striving to compromise among dwindling revenue, population growth, environmental resources, and the demands of powerful local landowners.

Emotions over the proposed Windsor UGB are so strong that Mayor Sam Salmon, Mayor pro-tem Lynn Morehouse, and Councilwoman Debora Fudge are up for recall on Jan. 6. Although the recall is couched in different terms, it’s clear that growth is at its heart. “What we’re talking about is opposing political opinions,” says Morehouse. “When we started talking urban growth boundary, [opponents] started talking recall.

“An urban growth boundary gives voters a voice in the future of Windsor, and it’s locked in until voters see a need to make a change,” she says. “In Windsor, over 70 percent of the people own their homes. They have made that financial investment in Windsor, and they are going to be here awhile. They are voting what they feel is best for the community, as opposed to political officials interested in their careers, looking for who is going to fund the next campaign.

“People value Sonoma County for what it is,” she adds. “They have seen what has happened in Southern California and Santa Clara County. It’s like the Joni Mitchell song … ‘Pave paradise, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.'”

URBAN GROWTH boundaries are not contiguous with city boundaries. Many are separated by acres of land, leaving room for cities to accommodate growing populations with housing, commercial, and industrial projects. For now, growth is business as usual. The crux will come down the road, when, as in Oregon, development reaches the edge of the designated urban boundary line.

“An urban growth boundary is not a ‘No growth’; it’s a ‘Where are you going to grow?'” says Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Reilly, who represents the west county. “Cities entertaining and approving projects of greater densities within the boundaries, that’s what it’s going to take to make it work.

“If we can’t come up with a livable and sustainable design of increased density, and be comfortable with that, I don’t know if the ballot measures are going to work,” Reilly adds. “Twenty years go by awfully quick, from a planning standpoint.”

Residential developers benefit from high-density development, says Tim Coyle, a senior vice president of the California Building Industry Association. “That will always be a goal. But at the moment, we have political opposition to higher-density development.

“To say theoretically that homeownership will take the form of stacked housing is to mistake what the public is demanding. Most Americans prefer a detached single-family home. If the market suddenly changes and they suddenly want higher-density, multifamily housing, then we’ll build it.”

Coyle, along with local builders and developers, cautions that UGBs will price people out of a housing market that is already one of the tightest and most expensive in the country. “In light of the tremendous job growth we’ve seen in the state of California and lackluster housing production, we know the situation is getting worse,” he says.

According to Coyle, the same number of homes were built in California in 1992–when the state was losing 1,000 jobs a day–as in 1997, when 1,000 jobs a day are being created.

“The Department of Housing says, ‘Keep pace with population growth,’ and that’s 200,000 units of housing a year. For the last seven years it’s been roughly half that,” Coyle says. “[As a result], people are pushed further and further and further out. They can’t afford the prices because of a hot economy and limited supply as a result of urban lines. People are going to go where the prices are cheaper, which will mean they can’t take their child to the dentist without taking half a day off because they have to drive so far. Then the builders and developers get blamed for sprawl.

“[UGBs] transfer problems from one area to another.”

During a recent segment of a KQED-FM Forum program devoted to UGBs, Clark Blasdell, president and CEO of Northbay Ecumenical Homes, was even more emphatic: “People want to live, and these kinds of policies say that people must live somewhere else. That’s the basic message of an urban growth boundary, that we’re not asking you to die, we’re just asking you to move further away,” he said.

“We will pull permits and build the homes, the 100,000 a year that Californians want, as far down the road as the people are willing to drive. They tell us what kind of house they will buy and where they will buy it. And we will only build it where they will buy it,” Blasdell continued. “If they won’t let us build here, we have to build it somewhere down the road, and they’ll have to complain about the fact that they’re driving back from Healdsburg or Cloverdale through Sebastopol to get to their job.”

A UGB “takes away the basic foundation of American government, which is representative government,” Blasdell concluded. “The two most defining characteristics of being an American are the right to own private property and the right to have choice. This is an attack on choice.”

SHAW of the Greenbelt Alliance, which has either spearheaded or supported every UGB measure in Northern California, says that developers have resorted to scare tactics in their rhetoric against growth boundaries.

“Developers are trying to scare people, [saying] that everyone is going to have to start living in 12 units per acre,” she says. “We’re talking the difference between three to four units per acre and five to six. That’s still single-family detached.”

Shaw–who also has suggested that downtown Santa Rosa could be revitalized if the city encouraged more apartment dwellers in the flagging urban core–agrees that higher-density housing has a less than stellar reputation. “It’s hard to convince neighborhood groups. People freak out because they think density means ghetto. It’s understandable. There aren’t many good examples of fabulous high-density housing.”

But that problem could be solved with a little creativity, she adds. “Developers buy agricultural land at the fringe of the city. It’s cheap, there are no neighbors, and they sit on it for 5 to 10 years. When the city gets close enough, they ask for annexation and make millions of dollars. Now they have to buy within the boundary because they can’t afford to buy outside and wait 20 years. It changes the whole dynamic of how developers do business.”

UGBs are a method of curtailing land speculation, Petaluma Councilwoman Jane Hamilton agrees, as well as using land more efficiently. “New development doesn’t pay for itself. It’s very expensive to do urban sprawl. New projects do not pay for upkeep of parks or the impact on schools, parks, streets,” she says. “Infill is utilizing what’s already existing and improving it.

“You could fit so many more homes in Petaluma with infill. There are lots of empty spaces; it just takes creativity to use them. It’s just not so easy for developers. Developers like the edges because they are starting fresh on nice flat land. It’s a breeze.”

Petaluma residents and city officials have been sniffing around the issue of urban growth boundaries for a couple of years, and Hamilton hopes that residents soon will voice strong support for a long-term UGB. “If you don’t have 20-year [UGBs] that can only be changed by vote from the public, your limit line is up for sale every time there’s an election,” she says. “This county will be gone in a heartbeat if people don’t do this kind of thing now. It’s almost too late.”

GROWTH and development are marching along status quo–at least for now. For example, by the year 2020 Santa Rosa’s current population of 132,996 is expected to grow to 200,000 within the UGB line approved by voters last year. The state Department of Housing mandates that cities have enough housing to accommodate growth, so Santa Rosa has annexed 1,482 acres in the southwest area of the city since August 1995, along with 300 acres in the Roseland area in July. An annexation of 28 acres in the city’s southwest area is in the works, as are a few annexations in the northwest area.

While voters may have assumed annexations were a thing of the past after adopting the UGBs, city planners point out that they are within the growth boundary and done at the request of the residents or the county and to meet state housing mandates.

“Yes, we are growing, and growing into previously undeveloped areas, but that was planned growth,” says Wayne Goldberg, Santa Rosa’s director of community development. “When people see growth in undeveloped areas, they tend to label it ‘sprawl.’ It depends on how you define sprawl.”

Goldberg defines it as development that reaches beyond the city’s service capabilities or invades other communities. In Santa Rosa, he says, development “has been consistent with infrastructure investment,” but “it is more growth than most people would like to see.”

Rohnert Park city officials garnered criticism recently from the Local Agency Formation Commission, a county commission that controls annexations, for too much sprawl in the wake of its UGB. “The people of Rohnert Park last year approved a five-year urban growth boundary,” Supervisor Reilly says. “No sooner did they do that than the City Council was looking for land to annex. It’s not the most coherent urban planning. It seems that the council, if not ignoring, is going against the will of the people.”

Rohnert Park, a city incorporated in 1962, has a history of shifting politics and a reputation for aggressively pursuing development. In 1996 the City Council failed to agree on where to draw the line for a 20-year boundary. Two of the five council members, Linda Spiro and Armando Flores, were spooked at the thought of handing such power over to the voters, says Jake Mackenzie, who ran for City Council that year on a slow-growth platform. Mackenzie then proposed Measure N, establishing a four-year boundary to coincide with a major general plan update in 2000. The council agreed to put it on the ballot, and the measure won, as did Mackenzie.

“The question is what happens next,” he says.

“It depends on the politics on the council in four years and if a 20-year measure gets passed,” says Mark Green, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action. “An urban growth boundary of only four years will not discourage the kind of land speculation that a 20-year [UGB] will. It’s easy to sit on a parcel for four years, but not for 20 years.”

That’s why Mackenzie hopes to have a 20-year UGB measure on the ballot within the next four years. “There’s no reason that all the land between Snyder Lane and Petaluma Hill Road should be covered in houses,” he says. “A lot of money came into town to try to defeat Measure N. These are people who control larger acreages of land. They have an interest in realizing their investment.

“Others of us would like the citizens to have ultimate control in the way in which and the rate at which it grows.”

UGB PROPONENTS vaunt their planning tool as a way to give residents control over development within the city–and a way to protect scenic agricultural acres outside the boundaries. The only snag in the scenario is that some farmers feel used by the tactic.

“Anti-growth people used agriculture to further their message,” says dairy farmer John Bucher, a board member of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “The whole campaign for UGBs was packaged, designed to grab at the emotions of the city voter. A feel-good thing. It made it sound like it was going to put a boundary around the city, development would happen in the city, and it would be open space outside. That absolutely is not true.”

What urban residents object to, says Bucher, are condo developments and acres of tract homes. But stricter boundaries for cities mean that there will be more pressure to develop agricultural land into the country estates that people want–environmentally correct or not. Twenty acres of berries split into five ranchettes may be lovely for the new country residents, but it is no longer viable agricultural land.

“Voters were really deceived,” says Bucher, whose family owns a 360-acre ranch in Healdsburg. “[UGBs] are not going to save agriculture. Strong farm prices are going to save agriculture.

“If push came to shove and we couldn’t cut it here and my folks wanted to sell, they could split this up into six home sites. There’s nothing that anybody could do to stop them,” he says. “Agriculture’s biggest asset is the land. A UGB is messing with our asset. … We didn’t even get a say on potential change in land and valuation. We weren’t even allowed to vote on the UGBs. It’s almost like someone living in town and all of a sudden those of us out in the country say we want to see their lot split in half and a condo built next to them.”

UGBs may be necessary, Bucher says, in places like the Central Valley and Silicon Valley, but not Sonoma County, where more than 50 percent of the county’s 1 million acres are in agriculture and 6 percent in housing.

In Sonoma County, Bucher concludes, “Urban growth boundaries are a solution looking for a problem.”

Or as Santa Rosa’s Goldberg says, “Everybody’s searching for some solution to what they perceive is the problem.”

People want to live in pretty places, work where they can make money, and drive whenever and wherever they want. Add in population growth, booming economy, traffic, housing shortages, two-worker households, inefficient public transportation, and the mix combusts. While UGBs may be a partial or temporary bucket of cold water, many agree, it seems unlikely that they will quench the firestorm of frustration.

“We have a lot of people who are refugees from San Francisco or the East Bay or Los Angeles,” says Santa Rosa community development director Goldberg. “Their fear is that we will repeat the growth scenario of where they came from. When they see development or growth in traffic, they think their fears are being realized.

“Everywhere in California is going to grow if it’s desirable. Sonoma County has an awful lot to offer in terms of living accommodations and lifestyle. … You can’t say, ‘We will not allow growth.'”

From the Nov. 26-Dec. 3, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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