Editorial: Strawberry change was about a fair process

Marin IJ Article

Marin Independent Journal Editorial

SUPERVISOR KATE SEARS is not the first local politician to change her mind amid political heat over the state's "priority development area" designations.

In fact, few neighborhoods in Marin likely would volunteer for the label.

The county already has backtracked from PDA designations in Marinwood and in Tam Valley. The San Rafael City Council dropped its plans for a PDA in Terra Linda. An earlier proposal that San Quentin State Prison be designated for a 2,000-resident PDA was scuttled by supervisors.

On Tuesday, supervisors voted 5-0 to remove Strawberry as a Marin PDA.

By dropping the designations, the county and city are turning their backs on state transportation funding for such "smart growth" opportunities where jurisdictions plan housing near transit corridors instead of encouraging sprawl.

Exactly how much money Marin is refusing is debatable, but it should not be ignored that those regional bodies with their hands on the funding spigot are the leading proponents of PDAs.

After months of pressure from Strawberry residents, Sears finally agreed to reconsider the label.

What worries residents about PDAs is that they see them as undermining a time-tested open and public planning process. They are worried that development is being expedited or "fast-tracked" at the expense of reasonable deliberations in the name of "smart growth."

It is up to local leaders to provide iron-clad assurances that every project will receive full public review, a full environmental review and no special procedural short-cuts.

County officials failed to convince local residents that the designation would not undermine thorough local review. That is a breach in public communication and trust that needs to be repaired. The process for establishing PDAs was more bureaucratic than organic; more top-down than community driven.

Strawberry leaders' complaints that they lack effective representation is troubling when Strawberry residents serve on the county Planning Commission as well as on a special task force that has reviewed county planning procedures.

That doesn't mean a good project that stands the test of public scrutiny for meeting local needs won't be approved and built.

Both neighbors and property owners deserve to be treated fairly.

For instance, the Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary deserves a fair chance to make its case for redeveloping its student and faculty housing. Much of it was designed when its needs were different.

Today, the campus has a growing need for family housing rather than dorms for single students.

At the same time, the 70-year-old campus has a longstanding symbiotic relationship with the community. Continuing its role as a good neighbor should be part of plans for its 148-acre campus.

Residents also need to be concerned about keeping the seminary a viable neighbor, recognizing the seminary's changing needs.

Those factors remain with or without a PDA label on Strawberry.

Changing labels does little to alter what eventually will happen on that campus. Nor does it lessen Marin's need for complementary, well-designed and right-sized affordable housing.