Larkspur’s City Council recently approved a draft housing element for its citywide general plan.
The draft was approved by a vote of 4-1. I was the only council member who dissented, and I think it is important to explain the reasons why.
Like most, I support the goal of improving opportunities for affordable housing throughout Marin County. I worry that the lack of affordable options limits the ability of some — especially the growing number of seniors in Marin — to share the benefits of living in this unique community.
But I also am concerned about how the need for affordable housing can be used, sometimes cynically, to serve the private interests of private land developers and property owners.
In casting my vote on Larkspur’s draft housing plan, I focused on three issues: the role state agency officials in Sacramento play in directing local land use decisions; the importance of meaningful public input on the environmental consequences of those decisions; and the need for flexibility in meeting our housing goals.
On the role of Sacramento, there is a common perception that no housing plan can even be considered unless it conforms to the narrow expectations of staff employees at the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).
That is not true.
Under the state government code, HCD guidelines are only “advisory” to local agencies in developing draft housing plans. Even if HCD disapproves a plan, the statute allows local government to adopt it anyway, so long as it makes a finding to explain why the plan meets the requirements of state law.
On the importance of public input, some argue that draft housing plans have no significant environmental impacts, so long as they do not change pre-existing zoning determinations — that way, local governments can avoid the public review and comment process that ordinarily is required under the California Environmental Quality Act. This approach ignores the fact that current conditions may be different from those existing at the time earlier zoning decisions were made.
Formal consideration of public views is essential to ensuring that current conditions and potential future consequences are fully addressed.Finally, on the need for flexibility, it is a mistake to assume that our housing needs can only be met through the development of large parcels that conveniently are adjacent to transportation corridors like Highway 101 or the looming SMART rail project.
In a low-growth county like Marin, there are other options, such as encouraging junior second units as an adjunct to the existing housing stock. Affordable junior second units can be particularly attractive to seniors needing less living space than growing families might want.
The promotion of junior second units is sometimes dismissed by planning consultants as not credible, since it doesn’t have a sustained track record showing past success in meeting regional housing goals.
Yet that kind of record will never be developed without a strong commitment to giving this strategy a priority over more traditional approaches.
There is no reason why local government officials cannot do more to foster creative strategies that meet the county’s affordable housing needs. Our constituents remind us repeatedly that they do not want new high-density development cluttering Marin County’s unique landscape.
By adopting innovative approaches to planning, we can meet our community’s expectations in all respects — and be proud of what we have accomplished in the process.
Kevin Haroff is a Larkspur City Council member. He also is the managing partner of Marten Law PLLC in San Francisco.