Contra Costa's voter-approved growth limits have just survived a six-year assault from a south county landowner and his power-wielding political strategist. But that was only the first round.
We welcome the announcement that Samir Kawar has dropped plans for his "New Farm" development in the rural Tassajara Valley east of Blackhawk and San Ramon. However, his substitute project, while less egregious, would still set a troubling precedent by busting the sprawl-containment boundaries for the first time.
At issue is the future of 771 acres outside the Urban Limit Line approved by voters countywide in 2006. In 2007, Kawar and his strategist, Tom Koch, proposed 187 mostly estate homes for the site. They tried to dress up the plan with inclusion of irrigated orchards, vineyards and food crops. But it was really just suburban sprawl with some olive trees, or as environmental groups labeled it, "Fake Farm."
At the county, Koch sought creation of a special zoning designation for the project to help circumvent the voters' wishes. Behind the scenes, he was applying political pressure. He had already conducted a brutal campaign to unseat a sitting supervisor who favored controlled growth. He also lobbied during the 2011 redistricting for supervisorial boundaries to keep the Kawar property in the district of a political ally.
Nevertheless, New Farm never gained traction.
Meanwhile, Koch tried an end run involving a San Ramon takeover of planning jurisdiction for the property and the rest of Tassajara Valley. That strategy backfired when voters overwhelming rejected a new council-drawn city growth plan that would have helped "New Farm."
Kawar has apparently grown tired of waiting. His new plan, dubbed "Tassajara Parks," tentatively calls for 158 homes congregated on the portion of his property next to Blackhawk, while dedicating most of the remaining land to the East Bay Regional Park District.
To put a less combative face on the project, Kawar brought in communications strategist David Bowlby, although Koch remains a background player. And, to avoid having to seek voter approval, Kawar plans to restrict the building area to 30 acres.
Under the ballot measure voters approved in 2006, the Urban Limit Line may be amended for up to 30 acres by a four-fifths vote of county supervisors, but only for one of seven specified situations. That provision aimed to ensure the lines were only altered for very compelling reasons. This project doesn't fall under any of those exceptions.
Moreover, there remains an equity issue: If supervisors set a precedent by adjusting the line for Kawar, what about the next request from another developer?
While "Tassajara Parks" is smaller than "New Farm," it would still require adding houses beyond current subdivisions more than five miles from Interstate 680. In other words, this remains the sort of suburban sprawl that voters aimed to curtail.