Legislation to Fast-Track More Housing Finds Opposition in Marin

Marin County, with San Francisco in the distance, as seen from Mount Tamalpais. (Craig Miller/KQED)

On high-profile bills this year to fix California’s roads and extend the state’s cap-and-trade system, Democrats in the state Legislature have mostly stuck together. And they’ve had some major legislative victories.

That unity will be tested with a proposal to streamline local housing development, one of the most controversial measures pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic leaders in their attempt to address the state’s affordable housing crisis.

In the Senate, eight Democrats, mostly representing areas outside of California’s urban centers, declined to support Senate Bill 35. The bill passed with the help of six Republicans votes.

“That to me is positive,” said Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who is carrying SB 35. “We’re putting party aside and treating housing as the nonpartisan crisis that it is for both Democratic families and Republican families.”

Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), the author of Senate Bill 35. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

SB 35 seeks to remove local roadblocks to building new housing by shortening the review process in communities that have not met goals for developing new homes.

Wiener needs to look no further than just across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County to find opposition to the bill within his own party.

There, many Democrats see streamlining as a threat to the power that locals have over developments in their backyard.

“Completely taking out the public’s role in this approval process is a mistake,” said Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat who represents Marin in the Senate. “I do feel that if the public is never involved in the approval process, that pendulum has swung maybe too far in one direction.”

The streamlined approach outlined in SB 35 applies to California communities that have fallen short of the development goals outlined in the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), multiyear targets compiled by regional government agencies.

Marin was dead last among Bay Area counties in permitting new housing during the last RHNA cycle, according to data from the Association of Bay Area Governments. Just 32 percent of the targeted 4,882 new homes were permitted.

Under the bill, if a housing development fits within existing zoning laws, cities won’t be allowed to put the project through the conditional-use process, in which individual developments can be required to undergo a separate hearing for approval.

Those local proceedings can become an obstacle course in which planned developments are unveiled, dissected, jeered at and often stalled amid an avalanche of neighborhood opposition.

Marinwood resident Stephen Nestel, who authors the Save Marinwood blog, has spearheaded efforts that have held up new housing proposals and even attempted to recall local officials for pro-development stances.

Nestel’s neighborhood of single-family homes is surrounded by natural beauty: green hillsides, a stream and a shaded park. He moved to the area a decade ago to enjoy the spoils of his surroundings.

“We paid for the open space. This is part of the lifestyle that we have purchased,” Nestel said. “We think that we have a right to maintain it.”

He says Senate Bill 35 is the latest attempt to tamp down neighborhood opposition and to move decision-making away from local politicians who he can reach at a weekly meeting.

“The reason that is so repugnant to me is that it really establishes a right of developers over the local communities’ right to discuss the problems that they’re going to face in adapting to whatever development comes here,” Nestel added.

Nestel and other opponents of the streamlining approach argue that the Bay Area’s job centers, namely San Francisco, should be the areas responsible for building new housing.

Stephen Nestel, author of the Save Marinwood blog. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

“If San Francisco had provided the housing when they gave tax credits for companies to be in San Francisco, then that spillover wouldn’t have been so bad,” said Marin’s Democratic Assemblyman, Marc Levine.

Levine says that Marin’s contribution to the state’s housing stock should reflect the county’s suburban nature. He pushed a budget trailer bill this session that keeps Marin’s “suburban” designation with regard to the density at which affordable housing is required to be built in the county.

“Marin should be designated as suburban, because that’s exactly what we are,” said Supervisor Judy Arnold.

The bill was criticized by a number of pro-development groups in the state who argue that all communities need to pull their weight if California is going to double the number of homes constructed each year. That’s the benchmark the state’s Legislative Analyst Office laid out for California to address its affordable housing crisis.

“While I understand that they want to preserve their small-town feel, you’re not in the middle of Nebraska. You’re part of the Bay Area,” said Laura Clark, executive director of YIMBY Action, a pro-housing advocacy group supporting SB 35.

Mary Murtagh has developed affordable housing in Marin for decades, as president and CEO of EAH Housing. She says the local furor against affordable housing developments has spread into other areas of California where EAH operates.

“Marin is no longer the only place where there is resistance to creating affordable housing,” she said. “The hearings are getting harder and harder.”

Murtagh proudly shows off an affordable housing community that EAH developed in bucolic Larkspur, a collection of one- and two-story buildings tucked into a hillside, with sweeping views of San Francisco Bay.

“Once we actually get something built and people see it, resistance falls away,” she adds. “Until then, there’s a huge element of fear, and it’s just very, very hard.”

Murtagh and local supporters of SB 35 hope that the streamlining proposal will actually serve as a shield for local lawmakers, against the groundswell of opposition that often accompanies individual projects.

If hearings on specific projects are bypassed, “It’s no longer your fault as an elected official,” Murtagh said. “It would take the political heat off of them for doing the right thing.”

EAH Housing CEO Mary Murtagh, at the Drake’s Way development in Larkspur. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

The streamlining proposal is one pillar of the housing solution pushed by the governor and Democratic leadership. SB 35, along with ideas to create new revenue for affordable housing, will likely be taken up before the Legislature’s interim recess in mid-September.

Legislation to Fast-Track More Housing Finds Opposition in Marin 21 August,2017Guy Marzorati

  • Babanui

    More than half of the geographical area of Marin County is not suburban at all, it is zoned rural agricultural (RA) or rural residential (RR), then there is the GGNRA, PRNS, Muir Woods National Monument, Mt. Tam State parklands, MCOSD, the County of Marin Parks, local town and city parks and also privately donated open space preserves. Marin has more open space and parks per capita by far than any other county in the greater bay area, yet the developers and their politician pals want to designate all of Marin as suburban.
    The truth is, the urban areas along the 101 central corridor were built out decades ago, actually they are overbuilt now and the only place left to cram in more imported population is in high density apartment buildings as infill projects.
    This big push to import more commuters into Marin (most of the jobs in Marin don’t pay enough for the workers to live here-even in so called workforce housing) is to try and equalize Marin into being the urban jungle that the rest of the bay area already is. It’s far too late to metropolize Marin, it’s either built out or zoned out (West Marin) or existing parks. Another factor is the main water district (the MMWD) has plenty of water to serve the existing residents of Central and Southern Marin, but the water supply is finite and can’t support much more development.

    • SB35 would clear the way for a developer free for all in Marin. Existing residents could sell up to developers with houses replaced by mid-rise apartments.

      101 congestion would become prohibitive. There would be no way to dig ourselves out of the mess. There would be an outflow of the middle class that support the tax base. Taxes would soar, so would traffic congestion. YIMBYs would be thrilled but they would be responsible for ruining Marin (a feat I am sure they would be proud to achieve in their quest to redistribute wealth, or undeclared class war).

  • The issue here is that Marin accepts low rise housing like Mary Murtagh discusses and welcomes more affordable housing. However SB35 is over-reaching as Mike McGuire validly points out.

    Now instead of more housing like Murtagh and I would both support with substantial affordable components this makes Marin and other locations a free-for all for mid rise apartment blocks dominated by luxury market rate housing.

    If SB35 were to pass we would see an irreversible trend of major developers building what we in Marin have come to call “WinCups” – the monstrous 5 storey ugly building put up with luxury apartments by an insensitive developer in a location already suffering from acute traffic issues.

    What we need is more small scale infill. As McGuire says this would push the pendulum way too far. The new residents will be highly paid SF workers who will further congest highway 101. We will get ourselves quickly into an impossible traffic mess – we’ll be the new Jarkarta. Quality of life for new and existing residents will be horrific. And this will be irreversible. Pipe dreams that public transit can take the load may work in cities like Oakland and SF but not in suburban locations where the dependency on cars is unavoidable.

    • Babanui

      The EAH is a religious corporation that is ordinarily is not involved in new developments, they have many existing apartment buildings all over the County that they have acquiesced that most people don’t know about, even Tiburon in 2 locations.
      The Drakes Way project is not normal for the EAH, but maybe what they would like to be doing more of in the future.
      For now, taking already built (years ago) apartment buildings and converting them to low income housing is a good thing, the last thing that Marin needs is trying to cram in more new apartment buildings.
      Marin is built out (except for northern Marin (Novato) ), so, the people of Novato better wake up to what SB55 is all about, especially since Novato recently got an enlarged water pipeline to feed them additional water from the SCWA for more development.

  • Sue

    SB35 is being deceptively marketed as an affordable housing measure. It is not. It is a measure to eliminate environmental review and an open, public process in order to benefit the bottom line of developers. A very high percentage of the housing that will be built will be matket rate, unaffordable to the vast majority of people who need it.

    • Abridged Crasher

      Uh,SB35 is marked as a stronger environmental reform foundation for housing measure. It’s basically tell cities that your downtown “infills” needs to be randomized highrises, midrises, 5/6 story high(that’s the old standard currently)/mixed use buildings “together” with office buildings being layered out on the public transportation roads in California. This “showcases the euclidean zoning chaos” that when wealthy homeowners in suburbs which happens to be Marin County blocking downtown infilled projects as being vertically high up built, they’ll be built right by kinda around them instead by sprawl and still inconveniently placed because of “land value”.

      Its a measure that logically in fact says the environmental review reform that is open,public process needs to drop crazy zoning and nonsense asthmatics on public transportation routes being given new high rise/mid rise,mixed use housing. These are being located to ease more public transportation into these downtown areas will always be market rate with random natural affordable after years.

      SB35 emulates laws of housing from Singapore/Japanese,Thailand to Taiwan streamlining almost to feel like EU common sense. Also it shows traffic congestion study exploit for CEQA lawsuit is “in fact a economic problem that has to solve itself through time” not a engineer’s problem.

  • dug

    I’m sorry, you can’t defend this poor performance: “Marin was dead last among Bay Area counties in permitting new housing … Just 32 percent of the targeted 4,882 new homes were permitted.” Note that is for 8-years so only a few hundred homes were approved.
    These statements of unfettered development into Marin’s wild spaces and Jakarta-reimagined are not genuine. The county gets the smallest housing allocations of homes to build in the Bay Area, which all the cities can jointly share in the planning for. Of course, protect your creeks and hilltops. But why fight a few hundred condos/homes a year? Build homes for your kids and your seniors.

    • Stephen Nestel

      Dug- Considering that Marin is by far the smallest of the nine bay area counties, this is an absolutely stellar building record. Our total population is about 250k versus millions in most other counties. Remember that eight years ago, we were in the depth of a housing recession and Marin actually had NEGATIVE population growth at that time. Your use of statistics is very misleading at best.

      • Roger

        Nestel, great reply to Dug. Well stated.

    • Babanui

      Obviously you don’t live in Marin so you don’t understand what Marin is all about.
      What the bay area media says is poor performance as far as adding more population to an already overbuilt Marin is excellent performance to us that live here.
      Most of the new construction in Central and Southern Marin is being done slowly far away from what people see when driving on 101 through Marin.
      It is very expensive high end single detached houses being built far up in the hills and canyons, not homes (condos and apartments). There are some proposals for large developments up on Mt. Tam and the hills of Tiburon (the Martha Co.), but those are being opposed by residents, but might actually get approval.
      Commercial real estate development in Marin has almost stopped, and many business have moved leaving a high vacancy rate for commercial office space.
      The prime developers and holders of commercial real estate in Marin are the healthcare industry, with UnitedHealth, the Marin General Hospital Corporation, Kaiser, BioMarin and Sutter being the prime movers and shakers, they are the ones who have all the profits from selling insurance, operating hospitals, inventing new drugs for rare diseases and most of them are tax-exempt to boot !.
      We had the Tamalpais Commons project in Mill Valley conceived about 15 years ago as a new high end multi-unit condo project, it went clunk and now they “apartmentized” the condos and rent them out for $4,000 per month. In north Marin (Novato) developers again lost their shirts building a mid-rise condo project called the Millworks, it went clunk too and had to be “apartmentized”.
      In Corte Madera (much to everyone’s opposition) MacFarlane development corp bought the old Handi-Cup manufacturing property and build a huge monstrocity apartment building call the Tam Ridge smack dab right on the freeway !
      Also, the conversion of the Old Fireside Motel in Manzanita into being low income and senior apartments built in the armpit of Southern Marin right on Hwy 1 and next to 101, with no crosswalks. That project was a disaster and plagued and delayed with problems for years. It’s probably the worst place to have people living, very dangerous and unhealthy.
      There are many reasons why Marin cannot handle an expansion of population, and seeing the examples of what has been done here in the last 10 years, you can’t blame anyone in Marin for opposing the “Bay Area Equalization Program”. If you lived here, then you would fully understand, Marin is unlike any other area in the greater bay area, and we intend to try and preserve whats left of it, no offense bay area but please keep your developmnt concepts out of Marin, Mahalo !

  • JayJay3333

    Why is the ZERO parking requirements from SB 35 not disclosed in this story. The developments which won’t satisfy requirement (a) can easily satisfy requirement (d). Zipcars and similar shared vehicles pay for themselves and if only one is provided within a block, there is ZERO parking required. No parking provided will be a huge cost savings for the developers. Lack of parking spirals out into adjoining communities.

    Copy and paste from SB 35:

    (d) (1) Notwithstanding any other law, a
    local government, whether or not it has adopted an ordinance governing
    parking requirements in multifamily developments, shall not impose
    parking standards for a streamlined development that was approved
    pursuant to this section in any of the following
    (A) The development is located within one-half mile of public transit.
    (B) The development is located within an architecturally and historically significant historic district.
    (C) When on-street parking permits are required but not offered to the occupants of the development.
    (D) When there is a car share vehicle located within one block of the development.
    (2) If
    the development does not fall within any of the categories described in
    paragraph (1), the local government shall not impose parking
    requirements for streamlined developments approved pursuant to this
    section that exceed one parking space per unit.

  • Daniel Bacon

    SB35 takes away the power of local citizens and governments to control growth. Marin schools are already overcrowded and so are our freeways. Perhaps the solution is to downsize zoning regulations, so that most, if not all, multi-unit projects will not qualify for the SB35 environmental review bypass. Let’s keep the levers of development in the hands of local citizens and governments.


Guy Marzorati

Guy Marzorati is a reporter and producer for KQED News, the California Report and KQED’s California Politics and Government Desk. Guy joined KQED in 2013. He grew up in New York and graduated from Santa Clara University. Email: GMarzorati@KQED.org

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