Affordable Housing, Air Quality & Emissions, East Bay, General Plan, NIMBY, Tri-Valley

Jerry Brown to Pleasanton: Housing and Climate Change Are Connected

Land use is famously about local controversies. Neighborhood groups, often brandishing long, unwieldy names like “Citizens For A More Responsible” something-or-other, fill up municipal legislative chambers demanding justice; other distinctly local personalities may also emerge into the forefront of the discussion. In addition, land use decisions are often based on a context made up of such fine microscopic detail that it would unproductive or impractical for the state or federal government, both presumably inexpert in those details, to intervene. A local government thus enjoys relatively complete autonomy over how land within its domain is used, subject to only limited requirements issued at the state or federal level.

But one major exception to that general rule is housing. The State of California requires that General Plans contain a set of elements, which lay out a blueprint and policy direction to guide future development. Among those elements, the Housing Element is singled out as special, in that it must be updated every five years in accordance with the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). The state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and ABAG will project the number of housing units that the Bay Area will need to accommodate for the next several years, at four income levels (very low, low, moderate, and above moderate), and then will assign a housing share to governments throughout the Bay Area, ensuring that the region, as a whole, meets the required total. Each local government then updates its Housing Element every five years, specifying how it will accommodate its share of the regional housing need. Cities throughout the Bay Area have been engaged in this process this year.

This process ensures that local governments plan to accommodate housing units that are accessible to a range of income levels. Without such a procedure in place, it’s easy to imagine what could happen. Many cities — whose elected officials might simply translate the parochial demands of a local NIMBY group into something resembling legislation — would shirk on their obligation to ensure the production of housing units, particularly affordable units. They might, for instance, amend the zoning code to contain a set of requirements that are a proxy for wealth, ensuring that only affluent citizens can afford to live there. Other cities might freeze growth altogether, thinking only of what will happen within their city limits and ignoring what the effect would be outside. The point is that without a state mandate prohibiting that sort of behavior, it would be difficult or impossible for California to accommodate, in a just and equitable fashion, a population that is projected to increase to 60 million by the year 2050. The state has an enormous interest in ensuring that all of its citizens, of all income levels, are safely housed; but accomplishing this goal requires the cooperation of local governments, who, after all, are empowered to control land use through zoning.

The City of Pleasanton’s Faulty General Plan

So what happens when, despite the state’s requirement, a city tries to shrug off its obligation to accommodate its fair share of housing growth? Then, the State must step in — like it did yesterday, when Attorney General Jerry Brown finally took action against the City of Pleasanton’s housing cap. In 1996, Pleasanton adopted Measure GG, which instituted a housing cap — no more than 29,000 units could be built within the city. Since 2006, the City had already faced lawsuits because of this provision, and in January 2009, Jerry Brown submitted comments (PDF) on the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) of Pleasanton’s General Plan update. In his comments, Brown indicated quite unambiguously that the housing cap was problematic. Now, in just a dozen pages (PDF), Brown clarifies how the Pleasanton cap violates state housing law. It basically comes down to the numbers. ABAG’s projections require that the City accommodate 3,277 housing units by the year 2014. But the City is only 2,007 units short of reaching the housing cap of 29,000 units. With the cap in place, not even those 3,277 units could not be built — to say nothing of the units that ABAG projections would call for after 2014. And, in fact, the City even still has to make up missing housing units from the last RHNA planning period, which ended in 2007.

The housing cap does not permit any exceptions — for instance, an exception that would allow the City to zone for the 1,270 additional units that would be needed to comply with the current RHNA. By not allowing such an exception, Pleasanton’s housing cap is in direct conflict with the state requirement. The housing cap could be struck down on that basis, but there is still another reason to strike it down. In order for a General Plan to be valid, it must be internally consistent. Pleasanton’s General Plan, however, contains a fatal flaw of inconsistency. The 29,000-unit housing cap is contained in the Land Use Element. The Housing Element, on the other hand, admits that the housing cap is an obstacle that prevents the City from meeting its housing allocation. The Housing Element, in accordance with the RHNA, encourages the production of moderate, low, and very-low income housing units to meet Pleasanton’s need. But that will be difficult to do, so long as the City enforces the 29,000-unit housing cap — particularly since the City is now only 2,007 units shy of maxing out. So the housing cap creates an internal inconsistency that renders the General Plan invalid. Removing the housing cap would, of course, remove the inconsistency, and would also remove the conflict with state law.

The Climate Change Connection

What continues to be interesting here is Jerry Brown’s consistent emphasis on climate change. In this case, Pleasanton’s General Plan just straight-up violates state housing requirements, and the City’s housing cap could be invalidated on that basis alone. Indeed, in his formal challenge of the housing cap, Brown focuses on the state’s Planning and Zoning Law to make the case. In supplementary materials, however, Brown has embraced a policy discussion that goes beyond simply pointing out the literal legal problem. In his January 2009 comments on the General Plan DEIR, he criticized the City for not adequately considering the climate change impacts of the Plan. (Amazingly, the City had claimed that a 46% increase in vehicle miles traveled was an insignificant impact!) This is an environmental issue, not a housing issue. More recently, Brown explicitly tied the housing cap to its effect on travel patterns and air quality — adding his voice to the chorus chanting about how focused growth and smart land use patterns are a critical component of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Interstate 580 through the Tri-Valley, one of the Bay Area’s most
congested freeways, is surrounded by suburban sprawl.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Michael Patrick.

It’s a classic example of what we observed in the beginning — a city, unless subject to an overarching regional or state mandate, will likely prioritize local parochial interests above the greater good. Pleasanton instituted a housing cap while thinking only about the perceived desirable effect it would have within the city limits — but it did not account for the effects of that cap on the greater region. Within about a decade, the number of jobs in Pleasanton almost doubled, reaching about 58,110 employees in 2005; that number has since grown to 61,100 jobs. But while Pleasanton has cleared space for this job growth, it has not kept up with making space for housing growth. As a result, ABAG found that in 2005, 79% of Pleasanton’s workforce lived outside the city limit, and a full 50% of the workforce endured long commutes from outside the Tri-Valley area. The City planned to continue allowing more office and commercial development, so that by 2025, Pleasanton was projected to nearly double its workforce once again, to 105,000 jobs. But all the while, the housing cap would be maintained, essentially freezing the population at about 78,200 residents for the rest of time. By not providing sufficient housing that would allow people who work in Pleasanton to also live there, the city is essentially forcing long, single-occupancy vehicle commutes — increasing emissions, adding more cars to extremely congested stretches of freeway, and pushing the region further into nonattainment. Pleasanton’s annual carbon dioxide output, which was 1.388 million tons in 2008, would increase to 1.940 million tons by 2025 if the housing cap were to be maintained. The housing cap would also prevent Pleasanton from developing vacant land near its BART station as densely as it should. Restricting growth near BART would diminish the value of this valuable asset, and it would prevent growth in the one place in Pleasanton where it makes the most sense. The housing cap, a purely local requirement, thus carries with it regionally detrimental externalities.

In this sense, Brown’s challenge — although grounded in housing requirements, rather than environmental requirements — may nonetheless be seen as the latest in a string of events that indicate Brown’s stance on the climate change crisis. AB 32 requires that emissions in California be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020; but in the absence of the anticipated panoply of regulations from the Air Resources Board, which will translate AB 32’s broad requirements into more focused action, cities and counties have been uncertain as to what their exact obligations are. Despite (or perhaps because of) that uncertainty, Brown has made it clear on numerous occasions that local and regional governments may not simply ignore the adverse impacts their actions could have on air quality — such as in 2007, when he scolded San Bernardino County, and also last year, when he scolded the Bay Area’s own MTC. And now, with this latest lawsuit against the City of Pleasanton, Brown reminds us of the spirit underlying SB 375, by putting on display the interplay between housing, transportation, and climate change. It is so refreshing to see that someone in our government gets it.



31 thoughts on “Jerry Brown to Pleasanton: Housing and Climate Change Are Connected

  1. I haven’t heard anything in awhile, but Hacienda has been butting heads with the City of Pleasanton over the housing cap for years. Short version, the park would like to add several thousand units of housing near D/P BART; last I heard, the City would only agree to a thousand and change. We’re not talking Tysons Corner here, but have you seen how much available land there is on the south side of that station? Then compare it to what’s happening on the north side, in Dublin?

    Posted by Steve | 25 June 2009, 10:19 am
  2. I agree that Pleasanton needs more mixed-use housing near BART, but it’s funny that Brown picked Pleasanton for this lawauit. I guess if you are a cool/hipster/super liberal town in Marin or the Peninsula it’s ok to limit housing growth. If you’re Pleasanton, and don’t meet the urban coolness standards of Jerry Brown or The Transbay Blog, a lawauit like this is great. Sorry, sometimes I forget towns like Mill Valley and Menlo Park are beyond reproach and don’t need to build any houses when you can put it all on the backs of towns like Pleasanton. God forbid the the Transbay Blog have anything good to say about Pleasanton (even though it has great schools, a thriving downtown, low crime, etc.), the writers might look bad in front of their hipster buddies at the Berkeley coffee house.

    Posted by AL | 25 June 2009, 10:20 am
  3. Hey AL,

    You make some good points, but Eric didn’t berate Pleasanton about anything except this over-reaching housing limit law. No snide remarks, just a focus on the fact that by imposing this limit, Pleasanton is engaging in NIMBYism, skirting state law and not doing its part to minimize climate change.

    For their part, Menlo Park and Palo Alto are doing the same thing — but they don’t have hard limits in place, they’re skirting law by stopping development on a case-by-case basis.

    Posted by Evan | 25 June 2009, 10:30 am
  4. AL: I don’t discriminate about where growth goes — it needs to happen everywhere around the region that has good transit access, and it needs to be planned correctly.

    You are incorrect to interpret this as a slant to Pleasanton in particular, and that you think so indicates to me that you missed the point of this post. Marin, by the way, will shortly begin the process of planning housing near its SMART stations. This is something we need to do everywhere. And if you’ve read other posts, you’ll find that I’ve been critical of Berkeley and San Francisco, as well, if it’s called for.

    It’s patently unfair for any city, Pleasanton or otherwise, to create a strict numeric cap on housing units — precisely because the consequences of that decision necessarily surpass the city limit. The quality of Pleasanton schools, and its low level of crime, are certainly positive attributes, but they are irrelevant to this post.

    Posted by Eric | 25 June 2009, 10:33 am
  5. There are hipsters in Menlo?

    Posted by Steve | 25 June 2009, 10:38 am
  6. …. but have you seen how much available land there is on the south side of that station? Then compare it to what’s happening on the north side, in Dublin?

    It’s been an interesting comparison to see the different attitudes. Also, Pleasanton enjoys a great amenity with frequent BART service, so it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for some density in exchange.

    And the numbers are really, quite frankly, scary. Right now, there are still more residents in Pleasanton than jobs, and it’s already the case that around 80% of the workforce lives outside the city limit. What will it be like when there’s 50% more jobs than residents? The vast, vast majority of commuters will be clogging freeways, streaming in from Contra Costa and the Central Valley. The regional impact from just one medium-sized city would be huge.

    There are hipsters in Menlo?
    They probably just moved south for the winter, and will be returning to the Mission soon!

    Posted by Eric | 25 June 2009, 11:11 am
  7. You’re right Steve, there are no hipsters in Menlo Park, my bad.

    The truth is I actually agree with most of the comments here and feel Pleasanton needs to get rid of the housing cap. I just find it interesting that other cities in the Bay Area weren’t singled out like Pleasanton, when they essentially limit housing in a similar manner. I find it ironic that the photo used in the article was a picture of east Dublin, and not Pleasanton. Dublin does not have a housing cap and has taken a sharply contrasting approach to housing development compared to Pleasanton. In fact, Dublin has approved or built mix-used transit projects near their BART station (and the coming West Dublin/Pleasanton Station). If the point of the photo was to show sprawl created by a housing cap, it is simply not accurate, because Dublin has accommodated housing growth and allowed for high-density residential developments. If you look over the 580 freeway from the development shown in the picture, you will see that Pleasanton doesn’t have nearly as much sprawl on its east side. In many ways, Dublin is doing exactly what Brown wants in terms of housing development.

    I was also wondering why people never call housing in the Oakland hills “sprawl”, even though housing dominates the hillside and residents are almost completely auto dependent. I guess if you have cool 1920s style housing stock, it isn’t sprawl. A the same time, Pleasanton is the bad guy for protecting their ridgeline and not filling it with housing.

    Posted by AL | 25 June 2009, 11:28 am
  8. AL,

    I actually wouldn’t support much development in Pleasanton *except* at Hacienda. But Pleasanton has been singled out here because it was singled out by the AG, and I think he did so because it’s an especially egregious example. Are there any other Bay Area cities with hard caps so directly in conflict with the Housing Element?

    Re: the Hills, you make a good point, although generally speaking the closer to the core, the less VMT and emissions. Also, what’s built is built, and there aren’t infill opportunities up on the slopes.

    Posted by Steve | 25 June 2009, 11:38 am
  9. AL: other cities are not implementing housing caps. The legal implication of a strict cap is very different from the implication of stopping a particular development. Also, there was existing litigation going on for the past few years over this provision, so it was convenient for the AG’s office to join in. Litigation takes resources, so it’s a strategic decision on the part of the AG’s office to decide which to pursue. In this case, Brown could (i) join an existing lawsuit; (ii) challenge a local regulation that directly conflicts state law; in a situation where state law preempts, and (iii) make a policy point that will be of critical importance in the near future. In other words, it’s good bang for the buck.

    Brown, by the way, has been engaging himself with General Plans up and down the state. This is bigger than just Pleasanton.

    As for the Oakland Hills: yes, you can also call it sprawl. The fabric is suburban, and its residents are dependent on cars. Again, this post wasn’t about the Oakland Hills. It’s about Pleasanton. Surely you didn’t expect me to discuss the Oakland Hills, as well as the quality of Pleasanton’s school and public safety, all in the same post? The post is long enough as it is.

    As for the picture: I think you’re reading more into this than you need to. As it turns out, there are many people who read this blog from outside California, and also from outside the United States. I like to include pictures for context, so that readers have a glimpse of the place they’re reading about. It makes the post more meaningful. That image doesn’t give a complete picture of what the area looks like (no single picture can), but it certainly isn’t unrepresentative of the sort of development that has taken place along the I-580 and I-680 corridors. And that sort of development has very much contributed to the traffic congestion and GHG emissions (which you’ll note is the subject of the very paragraph that the image is associated with).

    On a side note, I find it incredible that I’m being made to justify every last iota of this post, right down to the picture, whose selection and insertion into the post took a total of maybe 30 seconds.

    Posted by Eric | 25 June 2009, 11:45 am
  10. Eric: “other cities are not implementing housing caps”

    Really? I beg to differ. What do you call Measure A in the City of Alameda? That is a housing cap that pretty much does the same thing as the one in Pleasanton. Are you aware of Measure A?

    Posted by AL | 25 June 2009, 12:39 pm
  11. Great post, and an important issue. Pleasanton should certainly be taken to task.

    For the record, Menlo has no plans to produce a legit Housing Element, and didn’t last time, either.

    Posted by Greg | 25 June 2009, 12:46 pm
  12. Oh yes, AL, I’m very familiar with Measure A. I think I may have phrased that not well, though I was attempting to phrase it carefully. By saying “other cities,” I very specifically did NOT say “no other city.” I did not mean to imply similar things haven’t been tried before. Housing caps are a storied tradition in California, and actually, across the country. The case of Pleasanton is just one chapter in the book.

    Steve actually phrased it better — Pleasanton is a special case because it is so egregious. It’s more of a slam dunk than other cases, including Measure A. Measure A is, once again, not a direct, isomorphic legal equivalent to Measure GG. “Pretty much does the same thing” is not a precise legal argument. That’s fine — no one is saying you personally are required to make precise legal arguments. The AG’s office, on the other hand, is required to make precise legal arguments, or else it loses the case.

    Also, read the rest of what I wrote again, there are other factors that go into deciding whether or not to litigate. And finally, please remember that I’m in no way associated with the AG’s office, and had nothing to do with this decision. I support Brown’s decision to challenge Measure GG, because it’s lousy policy, bad for the region — oh, and also most likely illegal. There are other situations Brown might’ve singled out, including Measure A, but didn’t. That’s the AG’s office’s call to make — not mine.

    Posted by Eric | 25 June 2009, 12:54 pm
  13. Actually, something similar to the Hacienda/Pleasanton situation has been playing out at the Alameda Naval Air Station (er, Alameda Point).

    The fact is, cities always skirt the Housing Element, because historically it has had no real teeth. Hopefully that’s changing.

    Posted by Steve | 25 June 2009, 12:55 pm
  14. The fact is, cities always skirt the Housing Element, because historically it has had no real teeth. Hopefully that’s changing.

    I agree, going forward, that’s really the important thing to take out of this case. The point of the Housing Element is to ensure we have enough housing for all income levels; when that breaks down, it’s useful to see why, and reform accordingly. There are some important benefits that could come out of more centralized land use planning at the regional or state level, and maybe even the federal level.

    Posted by Eric | 25 June 2009, 1:13 pm
  15. Since there was mention of Alameda’s Measure A above, I thought I should just add in a quick link to this Chron blog post:

    Measure A is phrased in terms of a density limit, rather than a numeric cap. A density limit can be a de facto numeric cap, but there are also other differences between the Alameda and Pleasanton cases — differences that do play into Brown’s analysis. On balance, those differences point to Pleasanton as being the easier case to prove. Part of the issue is timing. Also, if Brown successfully invalidates Measure GG, that could be useful precedent if he were to go after Measure A. That’s why it makes sense to tackle the more clear-cut case first.

    Anyway, we can cross the Measure A bridge when we come to it. The AG’s strategy aside, the bigger point is that we need to hold cities accountable, to make sure they are producing necessary housing. Jerry Brown is to be commended for following up on this.

    Posted by Eric | 25 June 2009, 5:50 pm
  16. Measure A is a fascinating and complex story which still stirs up a lot of feelings in Alameda. As a result of the Suncal-Alameda Point project, people actually have semi-permanent lawn signs saying “Keep Measure A: Low Density=Less Traffic.” I do think Brown is right to go after Pleasanton simply because I think it’s overlooked as a major job center and has been able to slide by without absorbing its fair share of housing growth. But at the same time, what happens in Alameda will have a huge influence on infill development in mid-sized cities like Berkeley, Palo Alto, San Mateo, San Rafael, San Leandro, etc.

    Posted by Daniel | 26 June 2009, 1:12 am
  17. But at the same time, what happens in Alameda will have a huge influence on infill development in mid-sized cities like Berkeley, Palo Alto, San Mateo, San Rafael, San Leandro, etc.

    It could be, but pick any mid-sized city in the Bay Area at random (including the ones you just listed), and chances are, they are already planning or building some sort of infill development. Perhaps not as much as we’d like, or with the full support of the local community, but at least doing it. And even if Measure A were struck down, the implications aren’t necessarily that clear for all cities that have less draconian limits on density than what Measure A put into place (though it would be nice to see cities scramble to relax some restrictions). Cities do retain most authority on land use decisions, and are certainly entitled to limit density to preserve neighborhood character — but not to the extent that doing so freezes their ability to plan even modest increases in housing required under the RHNA. For this current RHNA period, the City of Pleasanton was asked to plan under 500 units per year, which is pretty modest, but it couldn’t even do that without violating the Measure GG cap.

    Posted by Eric | 26 June 2009, 8:25 am
  18. How childish of people to believe they have a say in the community they live in. Sacramento has destroyed most of California, and is now targeting the few areas that were evil enough to remain good places to live.

    Posted by Ian | 26 June 2009, 1:54 pm
  19. Ian, if we were talking about self-sustaining cities with no jobs/housing imbalance, I could almost see your point. We’re not. It’s not exactly fair of residents of Pleasanton to say, “You house our workers, we’ll build the job centers,” when job centers clearly provide more revenue for cities than residential does (thanks a lot, prop 13).

    Posted by Chris | 26 June 2009, 3:19 pm
  20. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

    Don’t hate the Pleasanton, hate the Prop. 13.

    Posted by AL | 26 June 2009, 4:51 pm
  21. How childish of people to believe they have a say in the community they live in.
    As I indicated in another comment, cities retain a vast amount of power in determining how land is used in their city limits. The RHNA is a qualification, but the city still has the power to determine what the housing looks like, where it’s located, etc. People still very much have a say, but they do not have complete and unchecked say. We do, after all, have both both a state and federal government, and sometimes, local governments must conform their activities to comply with state and federal laws. That’s just a fact of life in this democracy of ours.

    Posted by Eric | 26 June 2009, 5:06 pm
  22. Putting control over land use in the hands of the state government is a giant step towards communism.

    Posted by John Z. | 12 July 2009, 8:22 am
  23. True, absolute control over land use by state government would be a bad thing. However, that isn’t on or near the table. The question is which regulations are reasonable for the government to take in favor of common interests like protecting the environment and avoiding sprawl.

    It’s possible to make an argument that any government regulation is an undue attack on liberty. Since the focus of this blog is public transit, transit oriented development, and city planning, based on premises that these are valid activities, it seems unlikely that this argument will gain much traction here.

    Posted by aslevin | 13 July 2009, 10:57 am
  24. If the people of Pleasanton could make an agreement with Dublin and Livermore to take up their slack on housing, perhaps their outrageous position could be defended. This is what Napa County did to avoid growth and being out of compliance with HUD on housing allocation. They made the case that an agricultural county such as Napa should be able to retain it’s rural character and that all housing growth should be allocated to cities like American Canyon and the City of Napa. Those cities agreed to take up the slack in an MOU, but this is not the same thing at all. These are all communities/cities that wanted the revenue that business has provided, then they want those workers to go home at night to somewhere else so the city can stay small. Piffle…

    Posted by Janet | 15 July 2009, 2:23 pm
  25. I agree the P-town is especially ridiculous. Why shouldn’t there be a few mixed use developments on the adjacent BART blocks. Maybe a few more near Stoneridge Mall. The number of people driving to work in Pleasanton from Tracy, Stockton, even Sacramento is ridiculous. A few more housing units would solve a lot of problems. And take advantage of a limited resource: land adjacent to BART stations.

    Posted by Jame | 18 July 2009, 8:59 pm
  26. Sorry to be so late in posting this.

    If the issue is that some cities are shirking a responsibility regarding housing, why doesn’t Brown pick on two L A county cities whose record is truly sorry.

    City of Industry has vast amounts of vacant land but does not allow new housing. In 2000 the population was 777 but each day 80,000 workers from suburban bedgoom comminities descend on Industry to work. The city deliberatrely keeps out residents. It will not annex adjacent housing tracts because the cabal that runs the city is afraid of losing control. Talk about the impct on the environement, climte change, time wsted in transit to work, etc.

    Thenthere is Vernon, with about 200 residents and a work force of 44,000, all of whom must commute. Vernon’s history marks it as one of the most corrupt cities in the state. Like Industry, Vernon too has a cap – the city simply doesn’t approve plans for construction of housing.

    So why doesn’t Jerry Brown take on Industry and Vernon? First, this is all aout the race for governor in 2010/ The guy who 25 years ago told us smalll is better now doesn’t believe that anymore. We’ve got to make room for 60 million people. Second, there is a lot more wealth and political clout in Industry and Vernon than in Pleasanton, which ws a soft target for a future governor. Case in point: While the legislture was in a dither over massive budget cuts, they wrote into the budget bill a proision whereby Industry can use Redevelopment Funds to build an NFL stadium. Did Brown object, saying that lnd should be used to house some of the 80,000 commuters? He made not a peep.

    But Pleasanton. Now, that’s a real violation of the housing plan.
    Please pardon the typos. I’ve lost most of my eyesight, but not my vision for California.

    Posted by Ralph E Shaffer | 3 September 2009, 3:51 pm


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