Land-use Cowards

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

Amid the myriad and many examples of how government intervention upsets local housing markets comes one of the most shameful in the form of Assembly Bill 121 by Marc Levine, a Democrat from San Rafael.  Marin County wants to be exempt from the state requirement that all cities and counties must plan for their fair share of housing so Assembly Member Levine volunteered to imbed a provision in this year’s budget act that frees the exclusive county north of San Francisco from the housing mandate.

That mandate now applies to all California localities.

I’m not suggesting the current state process is anything better than a guide.  And, a lousy one at that.  The state employs a make-believe system – complete with need numbers and planning targets – for what it considers is the ultimate determinant for how much housing gets built and where.  It’s premised on the belief that local governments make markets and if they just plan for the new housing it will come.  It’s wishful thinking but is hopelessly naïve and illogical.

However, properly applied it (state housing element law) does act as somewhat of a discipline on an otherwise out-of-control process for approving new housing, of all kinds.  In fact, though rarely the subject of complaints of housing advocates, localities can get hauled into court and be advised by a judge to ease their land-use regulations, including CEQA.  Mildly helpful.

Marin County wants no part of that, though.  The County, with the highest per capita income in California, has all kinds of vacant land but has approved little in the way of new housing.  And, apparently, County officials have no interest in changing that – which is why they’re asking to be free of the state requirement.

They’ve done this before.  To keep people out of its tony seaside enclaves, a few years back the County of Marin refused federal transportation dollars for improvements to Highway 101 because it figured the improvements would be growth inducing.  Earlier, the residents of the County also argued (successfully) that needed water supplies would do the same thing so it refused state water.  And, this new land-use exemption simply extends authority to do it granted to them by the Legislature in 2014.

With median home prices in the County exceeding $1 million, shouldn’t lawmakers in Sacramento just say “why bother” and just go along with the current proposition?  No.

First, all other five hundred or so jurisdictions in California are abiding by the state housing law and are subject to punishment if they don’t follow through.  Why let Marin County off the hook?  Certainly, other localities around the state want similar treatment.  They hate the housing element process.  So, for this new treatment, where does the line form?

Second, despite the unlikelihood of anyone wanting to build housing in Marin County – where the last development occurred as part of the closure of Hamilton Air Force Base – there’s always a chance.  And, isn’t that what the state needs?  Housing wherever it can go?  And, it all can’t go in Los Angeles.

Third, what’s the state doing anyway?  Sticking its mitts into local politics?  Let Marin evade the law on its own (and suffer the consequences).  Sacramento lawmakers have plenty on their hands, already.

Fourth, where does it end?  Why not exempt the County from other state requirements?  Dealing with clean air?  Or, clean water?  Endangered species?  Coastal erosion?  Earthquake safety?  Why not?

Finally, it’s not right – it’s cowardly, attempting to hide under the skirt of state government.  We’re a society of laws, not men (and women).  We may not like them when they apply to us, but we abide by the rules.  State government exists because we – all of us – want it to.  Not just Marin.

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