Supervisor loses seat as Marin faces 
development questions

06/12/2014

Fears of high-density housing over the hill led to a three-term county supervisor’s crushing defeat by a challenger and another incumbent supervisor’s reelection by a scant 194 votes at the latest count in last week’s election.

Supervisor Susan Adams, who represents San Rafael, was unable to muster much support—only 39.9 percent—against San Rafael City Councilman Damon Connolly. Although Ms. Adams was first elected on a slow-growth platform in 2002, her opponents painted her as a development-crazed, entrenched politician who would “build, baby, build” to meet regional goals and maintain political control with favors and discretionary funds.

While the replacement of one supervisor will likely have no effect on development shifting to West Marin, the message from Marin’s voters over the hill may shift the conversation in the supervisors’ chambers and slow development in unincorporated areas, contributing to a dearth of affordable housing that is pushing out local tenants and driving 59.5 percent of workers to commute from outside the county.

“I do not consider the election to be a referendum on the need for a diverse supply of housing, including affordable housing,” Supervisor Steve Kinsey told the Light. “West Marin needs affordable housing as much as any other area in Marin, and I will continue to advocate strongly for that where it makes sense.” He added that the “fundamental protections” for coastal and agricultural lands should not be diluted to shoulder any housing burdens from “the city-centered side of the county.”

Marin’s requirement to plan for development has existed since 1969, when state law mandated general plans with regularly updated housing elements. The first plan passed in 1972 determined Marin’s fundamental character today, prohibiting massive development in West Marin to focus cities along the 101 corridor.

In 2003, the state legislature convened a broad coalition of representatives from local government, councils of government (like the Association of Bay Area Governments), for-profit and nonprofit developers and affordable housing advocates to reform its housing requirements. The group recommended allocating numbers of needed housing units to the councils of government, which would then assign a share to counties and cities, and requiring governments to identify possible sites zoned to meet that required development.

ABAG’s controversial Plan Bay Area took a further step by implementing “smart growth,” combining regional plans for housing and transportation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks in accordance with state law. ABAG told Marin it would need to accommodate for nine percent growth in households through 2040, the lowest of the nine Bay Area counties and roughly half the increases projected in 1980. 

As a whole the region is planning for 187,990 new homes within a decade, of which unincorporated Marin is responsible for only 185 by 2023. A third—61 homes—can be market rate. Thirty-seven homes should be for those making moderate income, or between $89,000 and $116,000 a year for a family of four, and 87 homes should be for low-income families. Although local governments are required to demonstrate how they could meet housing needs, the plans are non-binding.

An Assembly bill authored by Marc Levine may also make planning for state-mandated housing needs a moot point by changing Marin’s designation from metropolitan—the same default density as San Francisco—to suburban, which would assign lower requirements. The bill passed the assembly last month 62-4 and has been assigned to a state senate committee. Supporters argue the bill will jump-start affordable housing development by quelling opposition, but opponents contend that the bill’s passage will simply be an excuse to avoid constructing affordable housing.

“Not since the fight over whether to preserve West Marin has the tenor of debate been so high and the emotions so strong,” said David Edmondson, a member of Coalition for a Livable Marin, which advocates for biking, transit and affordable housing. “While our debate ramped up, the housing crisis in San Francisco continued to spill over the bridge and into our tree-lined streets. Rents have skyrocketed and the last vestiges of Marin’s blue-collar hippie past are finally starting to be pushed out entirely.”

During her last term, Ms. Adams supported a shopping center rehabilitation in Marinwood that included low-income housing, which residents said was out-of-scale for the neighborhood. She also drew heat for her leadership position in ABAG, even though she successfully lowered Marin’s housing allocation.

She fended off a recall attempt only months ago, when a petition failed to garner enough signatures for last November’s ballot, but many residents in Marinwood and Lucas Valley were still seething. At a meeting last year at the Marinwood Community Center, more than 200 people gathered into a room to shout at her.

“When did you stop working for the cows and start working for the condos?” one resident asked as other audience members clanged cowbells. “We need you to get the high-density, urban housing reverted.”

The critics claimed building housing in the area would clog the roads and freeways, stress public infrastructure like water and schools and attract criminals. Outsiders speculated how many of their arguments were true and how many were thinly veiled NIMBYism—“Not in My Backyard.” Ms. Adams eventually called for Marinwood to be removed as a priority development area, saying she had not seen the extent of development on the maps during the ABAG planning process.

“It looks like you volunteered us for the ghetto basically,” said Melissa Bradley, a real estate agent who was a top donor for Mr. Connolly’s campaign. “I don’t want these big, ugly buildings.”

(Ironically, Mr. Donnelly’s campaign was bankrolled by real estate dollars, including a $5,000 donation from Ms. Bradley. The industry may have backed him so realtors could continue to profit from high demand for Marin’s limited housing. Ms. Adams’ largest contributor, on the other hand, was The Dutra Group, which operates the San Rafael Rock Quarry with which she bargained a series of compromises this term. Neither responded to questions.)

Mr. Connolly said he put a lot of thought into challenging an incumbent. “What I’ve heard from the community is we’re ready for a change. We need a supervisor who listens, puts the needs of resident first and provides more effective leadership, someone who brings communities together,” he said at a debate this spring. “What makes Marin unique? Why do people move here? And as we know, once they do, they never leave. It’s the local values of a fierce desire to protect the environment; a belief in keeping exceptional, strong public schools; effective, efficient services; and low-impact development. We live in a great place, but there really is a sense that decisions are being made without those local values in mind.”

Ms. Adams will likely have one last word on the housing question before she leaves office. Even though their much-delayed housing element for 2007 was only passed last year, the county will take on another housing element to plan through at least 2021 later this summer in the hopes of winning certification from the state by the end of January. The supervisors, with Ms. Adams adding her say before she leaves in early January, will confront whether county government will plan affordable housing around transit hubs or leave the question of development and sprawl to solve itself.