Advocates: Brentwood Sprawl Measure a Litmus Test for SB 375

San_Ramon_sprawl_small.jpgThe ongoing struggle to contain growth within urban boundaries will likely move to San Ramon this November. Photo: cjaureque
While municipal planning organizations around California try to develop the metrics and models required to meet the goals of SB 375, a law mandating smarter growth, a local voter initiative in Contra Costa County is being held up as a bellwether of the public's support for strategic and sustainable development.

Brentwood voters rejected Measure F on Tuesday, June 8th, an initiative which would have increased the city's growth boundary by 740 acres to allow 1300 new homes to be built on open land, some of which is used for farming.

Despite proponents outspending opponents 35-1 and flooding voters' mailboxes with brochures extolling the economic benefits of development, the vote wasn't very close (57 percent - 43 percent ).

"It's very exciting that in Brentwood, a place where the battle over sprawl has been fought recently, the voters stood up and said we need to respect growth boundaries," said Greenbelt Alliance Executive Director Jeremy Madsen, a Measure F opponent.

"I'm very hopeful that the results we got out of Brentwood will send a very clear message to the [sprawl] proponents," he added.

Madsen described the proponents' campaign, led by Contra Costa County political mover-and-shaker Tom Koch on behalf of developers in the area, as a high-spending, glossy affair, "an ad campaign," whereas opponents "stood out in front of grocery markets, went door to door and put up a Facebook page."

Even Koch gave credit in part to the organizing strategy of the opponents. On Tuesday night, Koch told the San Jose Mercury News the opponents had successfully used Facebook to reach voters through their networks and that the anti-development sentiment resonated with them.

"We're processing a very difficult loss," he told the Merc.

Advocates like Madsen, however, don't expect the Measure F defeat to slow down the push by developers to build beyond urban growth limits. Madsen said Koch and his team are already gathering signatures to put another ballot initiative forward in the Tassajara Velley near San Ramon that would extend urban growth boundaries there. The initiative hasn't qualified for the November ballot, but Madsen expects it will shortly.

Measures like these will increasingly be the benchmark for how serious policy makers are about containing growth within city limits and developing strategically around transit, the purported smart growth goals soon-to-be mandated by SB 375.

At a recent panel discussion hosted by Greenbelt Alliance, Al Courchesne, a farmer and owner of Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood, said "local communities and regional and state governments need to support agriculture." Courshesne argued cities like Brentwood should put up money for agricultural land trusts that would support local agriculture by buying the land and preserving it from development.

"What we need to do going forward is manage [farm land] properly," said Courshesne. "It's going to require an education effort, stronger local support by residents and policy makers."

The link between preservation of open space and agricultural lands and the promotion of transit-oriented development in urban areas is a specific tenet of Greenbelt Alliance's Grow Smart Bay Area initiative and a dynamic that is likely to intensify as the regional population expands.

"If you are a smart growth advocate, you need to be an ardent supporter of protecting agriculture and farmland," said Madsen. "Increasingly, those who believe in smart growth are not just thinking about what to do with our cities, but how to build truly sustainable regions."