Bureaucratic planners are preparing to impose a high-density, one-size-fits-all way of life on Bay Area residents, claiming their plan is required by state law. It isn't.
The scheme is called Plan Bay Area, a strategy to squeeze up to 78 percent of new housing and 62 percent of new jobs into just 5 percent of the region's surface area, over the next two decades.
The planners call it "transit-oriented development," but the term that some critics employ -- "stack and pack" -- conveys a more vivid picture of the crowded communities and multistory buildings in which people will live and work.
The Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission say this scheme is required by SB375, a state law that sets regional targets for greenhouse gas reduction. However, regardless of whether Plan Bay Area goes forward, air quality in the Bay Area is already on course to reach the SB375 goals.
The targets will be reached by new state mandates for cleaner gasoline and for improved automobile mileage and emissions, according to the state's official projections.
By failing to adequately disclose this fact, the planning agencies violated the California Environmental Quality Act. When an agency proposes something that could have a significant effect on the environment, CEQA requires it to facilitate informed public and agency deliberation by disclosing the environmental consequences of proceeding or not doing so. The environmental report prepared for Plan Bay Area falls woefully short of this requirement.
Instead of laying out all the facts, ABAG and MTC rely, literally, on fiction. Their report assumes away the state's new gasoline and automobile standards. It also ignores the significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions since 2005. The failure to disclose this evidence can only be explained by one thing: it gives the misimpression that the plan simply must be adopted.
The agencies also ignored criticisms and contrary evidence submitted by the public. For example, a well-researched and reasonable alternative plan was put forward by an organization called Bay Area Citizens, a grass-roots association of residents throughout the region dedicated to fully involving the public in the process.
The group's plan would reduce emissions without pushing people into unwanted high-density housing. It would focus on expanding bus service to low-income and underserved communities. It also recommends reducing fares for those riders whose only other choice would be to drive older, less-efficient cars. This approach is supported by extensive evidence demonstrating that transit works best to reduce emissions when it focuses on these riders.
Bay Area Citizens' alternative would have the added benefit of avoiding some of the negative environmental effects that would result from Plan Bay Area. The agencies' own environmental report concedes that their plan would have at least 39 negative environmental impacts, including significant pollution caused by constructing and operating additional light and heavy rail.
And yet, ABAG and MTC gave Bay Area Citizens' alternative no consideration. Here, too, they were violating the law, because CEQA doesn't allow planners to ignore public input in this way. It expressly requires agencies to consider a reasonable range of alternatives, including proposals from the public.
Bay Area Citizens' alternative is precisely the type of proposal that the planners are required to consider: It's better for the environment and protects people's freedom to choose for themselves how and where they'll live.
Public policy must be made in a way that allows informed public participation. But Plan Bay Area was drafted by agenda-driven insiders.
The region's residents deserve better than this -- and they'll get it, if a lawsuit recently filed by Bay Area Citizens is successful. Throughout the planning process, this group tried to speak up -- but it feels it was ignored because ABAG and MTC didn't like what it had to say. With this lawsuit, it aims to hold these bureaucrats accountable to the law and the public.
Bay Area Citizens isn't seeking money or special favors. Its suit only asks the court to order the planning agencies to start the environmental process over, and this time give the people who'll have to live under their plan the information, deliberation -- and respect -- that they deserve.
Jonathan Wood is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation. He is one of the PLF attorneys who represent Bay Area Citizens, free of charge, in its lawsuit challenging Plan Bay Area.