Seldom has there been a government initiative less understood or more reviled than the transportation and land-use strategy known as Plan Bay Area. Ten months after its adoption by the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, three lawsuits challenge its legality, and critics gag at its mention. How dare government officials push for affordable housing, growth near transit hubs and plans for added population?

Opponents, who interpret sustainable growth as social engineering, see Big Brother pulling them from their cars, forcing them into tenements and telling them which BART trains to board. Conspiracy theories are best served up big.

The subject is so delicate that most public officials avoid it. That's what makes Lafayette's current series of community meetings surprising. Mayor Don Tatzin has been explaining the planning effort to residents and inviting them to participate.

The "Lafayette 2014-2022 Housing Element Update" -- OK, the name could use some work -- is a primer on how communities are required to identify sites for potential housing units across a spectrum of income levels. That doesn't mean units must be built, he said, just that sites be identified. (For the 2007-2014 cycle, Lafayette identified 361 sites, but fewer than half were developed.)


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This process, part of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, has been required by state law for as long as Tatzin has been a councilman (28 years), but it went largely unnoticed before reduction of greenhouse gases became part of the formula. Senate Bill 375 in 2008 established the goals, and ABAG was charged with assigning growth projections and guidelines for smart development. Plan Bay Area was born.

"Plan Bay Area heightened peoples' sensitivities to what we're doing," Tatzin said. "It's been more contentious since then."

It's not clear why. Developing underutilized lots near transit only makes sense. And failing to develop a housing element exposes a city to developers' lawsuits, Tatzin said.

The three dozen residents at last week's workshop were asked to pick sites in or around downtown best suited for multifamily housing. The city must plan for 400 units this time, with a minimum density of 20 per acre.

Make certain they're compatible with adjacent properties, said consultant Diana Elrod, meaning no condos next to body shops. It's best if grocery stores, drugstores and transportation are nearby. Sites can be no smaller than three-quarters of an acre.

This was a hands-on learning experience, according to City Manager Steve Falk. "It's easy to criticize when you don't have to follow the rules," he said. "If you make the people pull the levers themselves and decide where sites should be, they become more realistic."

Few East Bay cities are better than Lafayette at engaging residents. A handout answered many expected questions -- withdrawal from ABAG doesn't stop housing elements; every California city participates in this process; density demands are greater for larger cities -- and the mayor and city staff answered others.

Why, a woman asked, should Lafayette expect low-income families to move into town? More likely, she was told, they won't be strangers moving in but locally employed people hoping to live where they work.

The biggest question of all: If we don't like this process, what do we have to do?

"You have to elect a new governor and legislators," Tatzin said. "This is state law."

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayaranewsgroup.com.