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@CVP - The Great PDA Debate

The Great PDA Debate - Part I


Go to Part II


Mill Valley Patch - March 11, 2014


A multi-part series on the facts and fallacies behind debate about PDA designations in Marin County, by Bob Silvestri.

On February 25th the Marin County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing about whether or not to remove the Priority Development Area (PDA) in the Strawberry neighborhood. A PDA is a land use designation that a city or county can assign to indicate a desire for high density growth in that location.


The hearing was led by Kate Sears, the Supervisor for the Strawberry district, who lectured the public in chatty, schoolmarm tones through an ever-present grin that seemed oblivious to the community’s need for her to at least emotionally acknowledge the seriousness of the issue before them.


For months Ms. Sears had tried to dismiss, deflect and derail the need for such a hearing. At first she tried to divide and conquer by refusing to attend any large community meetings: she would only meet with small groups to diffuse dissent. But her attempts didn’t work. She had ignored requests to put the topic on the agenda of the weekly BOS meetings for 14 consecutive weeks, but the public wouldn’t let up. She had even tried to shift the decision’s responsibility to entirely different agency, the Transportation Authority of Marin, but to no avail. Her curious obstructionist tactics only fanned the flames. By now her constituents were fully informed and actively engaged in making their opinions known.


And so it began.


After a variety of somewhat long winded, defensive and off topic remarks by most of the Supervisors it was time for a presentation by Community Development Director, Brian Crawford.


Mr. Crawford’s staff report was ostensibly about the history, locations and ramifications of PDAs in Marin, but it ended up being a good deal of confusing disinformation and “planner- speak” gibberish (see video here: Item 16). But as innocuous as his report may have seemed, it was in some ways one of the more important things that occurred at the meeting because it touched on, or perhaps more appropriately failed to touch on, larger issues we are facing about PDAs.


No Wonder Everyone Is So Confused


Mr. Crawford showed the Board a map of the County’s Priority Development Areas. On it, it showed that the entire north-south corridor within a half mile of highway 101 was designated as the “Highway 101 PDA Corridor” (indicated by hash marks).  Mr. Crawford went on to explain that the County had “volunteered” this entire swath of land as a PDA back in 2006 and 2007, during the Pre-Plan Bay Area “Focus” sessions led by ABAG. He then noted that in 2010 to 2011 the BOS had voted to confirm this PDA designation for the 101 corridor and to include what the map called “Transit Neighborhoods,” which included the Strawberry PDA.


Oddly, his presentation and charts made it sound as if (1) the county had the authority to dictate land use for property that was located within other cities in Marin, and (2) that everything within a half like of highway 101 was a PDA, as defined by Plan Bay Area.


This, of course, is completely wrong.


The areas noted as Transit Neighborhoods were in fact the only actual PDAs.  But the map was still incorrect because the outlines of the areas noted as Transit Neighborhoods did not correspond accurately to the areas of the actual PDAs noted in the County’s Housing Element. In places like Marin City, for example, this is significant because his map showed County Housing Authority-owned projects, like Golden Gate Village, as being in a PDA, which it is not.


Why the map was presented at all remains a mystery.


However, predictably, not a single Supervisor raised an eyebrow or seemed to care enough to question his misstatements even though they should have all known that the County’s Housing Element only recognized a few remaining areas as actual PDAs: Strawberry, Marin City and California Park (Marinwood and the Tam/Almonte area having already been removed).


But okay, so the map was wrong. What’s the big deal?


Some Backstory


The ABAG Focus sessions that Brian Crawford referred to happened prior to the passage of Senate Bill 375 in September of 2008. SB375 was the legislation that made the terms “Priority Development Area” (PDA) and “Transit Priority Project Area” (TPA) meaningful legal terms and connected them to federal and state transportation funding. That funding was the primary argument the BOS had been making as to why the Strawberry PDA should remain.


Following the passage of SB375, our metropolitan planning organization (ABAG and MTC) had to craft a “Sustainable Communities Strategy,” which became a known as Plan Bay Area. Plan Bay Area was not adopted until June of 2013. 


Whatever the County might have done prior to the adoption of Plan Bay Area was not officially connected to federal and state transportation funding that Plan Bay Area brought with it targeted for PDAs.  


It’s important to also know that it was SB375 that clearly defined the state’s intention of promoting and incentivizing zoning changes for high density transit oriented development (TOD). SB375 and Plan Bay Area make it emphatically clear (in fact it’s pretty much their sole purpose) that 80 percent of the TOD that occurs is targeted for places that are designated as PDAs, and the majority of the funding to facilitate transportation and infrastructure improvements to help that development happen (in the form of One Bay Area grants) will also go to areas designated as PDAs.


The PDA designation, therefore, in practical terms is like putting a target on your back to advertise to TOD developers and investors. This is why the residents of Strawberry were upset with their community being “volunteered” to be a PDA without their consent.


Perhaps the BOS should read the Plan, where on page 1 of its Executive Summary, it states, “Plan Bay Area provides a strategy for meeting 80 percent of the region’s future housing needs in Priority Development Areas (PDAs).”


At best, Mr. Crawford’s presentation might be called the “half-truth” on PDAs. But he also failed to tell the public that even without the PDA designation the entire 1 mile wide 101 corridor qualifies as a TPP (Transit Priority Project) zone or TPA (Transit Priority Area), another designation created by SB375.


Being in a TPA (defined as a “quality transportation corridor” because it has a bus that runs every 15 minutes during peak hours) means that the entire area, including Strawberry, is still eligible for zoning and development incentives and other types of funding and grants to facilitate TOD, regardless of whether or not a PDA designation is attached.


In addition, high density project proposals in TPAs are eligible for California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) streamlining or even exemption (no Environmental Impact Reports required for TOD projects that qualify under SB375 and contain 10 percent low income, affordable units or that pay an in-lieu fee to the county). And these projects are also eligible for an additional 10% square footage density bonus under the State Density Bonus law.


One would assume all this is germane to the BOS decision-making process and the public’s right to know, but what do I know.


But PDAs Are Harmless


Proponents of PDAs are fond of saying that a PDA designation does not change zoning.  But there’s no question that the whole purpose of SB375 and Plan Bay Area and PDAs is to promote zoning for high density, transportation oriented development, ostensibly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks (though there is no scientific evidence that TOD will actually reduce GHGs).


I suppose it may be technically true that an area can be designated as a PDA without an actual zoning change, at the time the designation is made. But this would be analogous to when a government agency tells you that they’ve decided to build a freeway off ramp where your house is. Your zoning may not change the same day they approve the plan but I’d advise you to start looking for a new place to live.


PDA proponents also claim that PDA designation does not mean that any projects will actually get built. But again, this is an academic argument.


Having formerly worked as a land broker and development advisor, I can attest that my job completely revolved around keeping abreast of the minutest changes in public policy, public works department plans, or the impacts of new legislation, because everything impacts land values and profit potentials and rates of investment returns.  So anyone who argues that a PDA designation and all that it implies about zoning incentives and infrastructure improvements funding, does not equate to a likelihood of more development is being disingenuous at best.


If a developer is looking at two pieces of land and one has no zoning incentives, no public improvements funding attached to it, and no potential for higher density or development grants funding to make a project more financially feasible, but the second piece of land has all of these, which one do you think they’re going to invest in?


We don’t live in an academic world.


Finally, PDA and Plan Bay Area proponents are always saying that PDA designations do not remove local control. 




The Tail Wagging the Dog of Local Control


The California State Housing Element law requires municipalities to create a Housing Element (a housing development plan) that conforms to its regulations and now by direct reference to the provisions of SB375 and Plan Bay Area.  To obtain a certification from the state Housing and Community Development agency (HCD) municipalities must provide tangible zoning opportunities and incentives to promote affordable, high density, transit oriented, mixed use development. That is the whole point.


This often results in the creation of “overlay zones,” lists of privately-owned properties targeted for high density, mixed use development, and it includes designating PDAs and offering other zoning incentives, and sometimes, when demanded by HCD for certification, actual rezoning of property to promote development (e.g., the city of Fairfax just did that and Corte Madera did it for Win Cup).


Failure to obtain HCD certification can result in law suits brought by housing advocates and developers, who can demand zoning changes, and who will probably win in court, leaving the city with legal fees, fines and penalties. Corte Madera is one city that suffered this fate.


However, the Housing Element is a component of the General Plan. And state law requires that all parts of a General Plan must be in conformance, or in plain English, the parts cannot contradict each other. So where the rubber meets the road, the provisions of the Housing Element (increasingly dictated by HCD and even HUD) drive the form and content of the General Plan and force changes to the General Plan that would not otherwise happen. Since the Housing Element is legally joined at the hip with SB375, Plan Bay Area, and transportation grants like the one that was targeted for Strawberry, this directly impacts the probability of present and future zoning changes of any area labeled as a PDA. So the question of zoning changes is not if but when.


And there is nothing more fundamental to the concept of local control than zoning.


Lastly, just ask yourself this. Since the clearly stated purpose of SB375 and Plan Bay Area is to promote incentives for zoning for high density, transit oriented development, and since the PDA designation is the primary way it provides to target those areas for 80 percent of the TOD and the transportation and infrastructure improvement funding to support it, how in the world could anyone say, with a straight face (as the Supervisors and housing advocates have), that being a PDA will not affect zoning or be a prelude to high density development?


If anyone still doesn’t believe this is so, you need only to look to Marc Luce himself, the President of ABAG, who promoted PDA development “opportunities” to the attendees of the Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investors conference, held in San Francisco in November of 2013. At this convening of the who’s who in real estate development and investment banking Mr. Luce urged his eager audience to “come on down” because communities with PDAs are saying they want to see high density development proposals for their neighborhoods.


It’s ironic to point out that Marc Luce also lobbied against having a PDA in his home town of Napa, and even brags about it, on his web site, because he wanted to preserve the small town character of Napa.


The man knows from where he speaks. Because it turns out that there are other unmentioned ramifications of designating PDAs and embracing the TOD paradigm that Mr. Crawford also failed to tell the public about.


Go to Part II


Back to @CVP

The Best Laid Plans:

Our Planning and Affordable Housing

Challenges in Marin

by Bob Silvestri

Available on Amazon

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