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A Diverse Electoral Landscape
By Aleta George
The cities of Gilroy and Cotati sit at opposite ends of the nine-county Bay Area. Although Gilroy is eight times bigger and has about seven times the population that Cotati does, the cities have a lot in common. Both were incorporated in the 1860s, and both have historic downtowns and rich agricultural heritages. Both cities are famous for their festivals, and both are surrounded by open space and farmland, features they highlight as an amenity to living there.
This November, the cities have something else in common. Each has its own Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) initiative on the ballot. In general, a UGB establishes geographic limits to a city’s expansion, encourages growth within city limits, and protects surrounding open space and farmland.
The use of UGBs in the Bay Area is a fairly new conservation tool. About 20 years ago there was a small explosion of cities that implemented them, and today more than 40 cities have them. Most UGBs have expiration dates built in, and that is why this November several cities have UGBs up for renewal, including Milpitas (Measure J) and Cotati (Measure Q). The proposed UGB in Gilroy is a first.
When it comes to the ballot box, UGBs are just one way that cities, counties, and park districts can protect open space. Conservation interests also put forth measures to raise funding through sales taxes, parcel taxes, or bonds. But while governments and nonprofits across the region frequently propose these different types of initiatives, rallying support for them is not always a walk in the park.
Some communities prioritize open space and parks, with support coming from elected officials, the business community, and the electorate. In other communities it’s more complicated.
Sonoma County, for example, has a long history of open space protection. It’s the only county in the Bay Area where every city has a UGB. The City of Sebastopol renewed its UGB this year without even taking the issue to the polls. With solid support from the city council, the UGB in Cotati is expected to pass. And on the county level, ballots will feature Measure K, which would renew protections for so-called “community separators” another 20 years; in 1996, voters overwhelmingly approved the preservation of these greenbelt buffer lands between cities and towns.
“The public here has a long history of recognizing our special landscapes and using the political process and the power of mobilizing people to protect them,” said conservation activist and consultant Dennis Rosatti.
Similarly, constituents in Alameda and Contra counties show strong support for the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). In 2008, 72 percent of voters approved a $500 million general obligation bond for the agency.
“[The district] has been part of the region’s DNA since 1934. It’s part of the culture here,” said Erich Pfuehler, the government affairs manager for EBRPD. “We are also constantly in the community listening to what people want in their park experience.”
Not all communities have that unity.
“Although there is an inclination in every county for land conservation, there is more diversity in the Bay Area than outsiders might recognize,” said Deb Callahan, executive director of the nonprofit Bay Area Open Space Council. “Urban areas have a more liberal voting base, and initiatives can almost pass on philosophical arguments alone. Other areas are less inclined towards regulation and taxation.”
Gilroy is one example of a community grappling with how best to grow. The local chamber of commerce opposes Measure H, the UGB initiative that residents launched after the city council tried to advance a large housing development project while the city was in the process of a general plan update. A group of diverse residents called Gilroy Growing Smarter obtained 3,500 signatures to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
“There are 15 cities in Santa Clara County and it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins,” said Gilroy Growing Smarter Co-chair Connie Rogers. “The only marking is a sign on the road, but the streets and the intensity of the development are the same. We don’t want that.”
Housing and Open Space
There is an affordable housing crisis in the Bay Area, and it will only get worse as the population increases. By 2040, our population is expected to grow from 7 million to 9.3 million people, and even before that growth occurs there is a need for affordable housing. Some believe that the answer to our housing needs lies in new developments. Others disagree.
“It is a misconception that all growth is good,” said Megan Medeiros, the executive director of the Committee for Green Foothills, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto. “Morgan Hill is a good example. They have been spreading for some time, and now they pay more per capita for services than many other cities in the county. Our region needs homes, but sprawling on prime farmland when there’s a lot of potential downtown is not the way to do it.”
Putting Dollars Where Your Boots Are
In addition to controlling the parameters of development by supporting or rejecting community separators this November, Sonoma County voters will decide on a half-cent sales tax for park improvements (Measure J). Voters in neighboring Napa County will face a comparable decision about whether or not to renew a quarter-cent sales tax for their park district (Measure Z).
It’s not just the North Bay that has asked voters to pony up. In recent years, Santa Clara County voters approved a parcel tax for the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority (Measure Q), and voters in three counties said yes to Measure AA, a $300 million general obligation bond to help fund the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.
There are reasons why voters are seeing more funding measures on the ballot recently. “The 2008 downturn hurt the parks and open space community very, very badly, and each jurisdiction is still digging out and making themselves whole,” said Callahan.
EBRPD’s Pfuehler said that park districts have to go directly to voters for funding because two sources of once-available money dried up. One is the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal pool of money collected from oil and gas companies that pay fees for public land use. Those fees are supposed to be distributed among states for natural resources, parks, and open space, but “Congress is controlling the money, and that stream is not flowing,” said Pfuehler.
Local and regional parks have also benefited from state bond measures, but there hasn’t been one of those since 2006. This year’s Assembly Bill 2444 (E. Garcia) would have placed a park bond measure on the November ballot, but it died in the Senate.
“AB 2444 was the little bill that could — almost,” said Callahan. “But there isn’t a sense of defeat. Members who led it intend to reintroduce it next year.”
Is There a Better Way?
When faced with an array of initiatives and measures, voters may wonder if there is a more efficient and less costly way to protect open space and support parks in the region. The notion of a more regional approach to protecting open space is why park managers and planners are happy with the passage this past June of Measure AA, a parcel tax for wetlands restoration (see article next page). It was the first-ever region-wide measure of its kind.
“Measure AA was a positive step,” said Pfuehler. “It’s viewed as a good precedent for what could happen for open space and park agencies in the future.”
Aleta George covers open space for the Monitor.