Successful democracy depends on community discussion to reach the best outcome. But what if special interest groups infiltrate key positions to promote self-serving, green-washed schemes on the public? What happens when the public awakens to realize what’s happening and disagrees?
Supporters of high density, transit oriented development, including Wall Street banks, developers, builders unions, and social equity activists, reap benefits from the very policies they helped shape like California Senate Bill 375, ABAG’s Plan Bay Area and the Marin County Housing Element. These financiers and activists mask their motivations behind claims of social justice and combatting whatever else is ailing the planet.
Volunteering Needless Sacrifices Without those Affected Present
These special interests have helped formulate policy such as Plan Bay Area, housing quotas, Climate Action Plans and Housing Elements in a bubble – a bubble removed from the input of residents who might be concerned about foundational flaws in the thinking – such as transit emits less greenhouse gases than cars (disproven by facts covered by this Planning for Reality article).
This policy-formulation bubble was also removed from what sacrifices residents might be willing to make to achieve these special interests goals – such as diverting money from roads to other transport modes, even despite these modes declining in usage after increasing investments. Or imposing developments such as WinCup across Marin – in the hope that the new residents work in Marin or a disproportionate number will take transit – more flawed thinking.
A Revolving Door Between Planners and Special Interests
Recently I emailed an ABAG employee to understand how Priority Development Areas (PDAs) are rescinded. Using LinkedIn, I discovered that he was a former employee of Urban Habitat, the social equity advocacy group that filed suits against Pleasanton and Menlo Park when they failed to meet the state’s RHNA quota. A similar suit by Legal Aid of Marin and Public Advocates, Inc. caused Corte Madera to buckle to pressure, allowing the monstrous Win Cup to be built.
I discovered that the planner overseeing the Marin County Housing Element is a director of the Marin Workforce Housing Trust, a multi-million dollar non-profit funded in part by the Marin Community Foundation with a mission of supporting the approval of housing projects.
Are we naïve to expect regional and county planning policies to be driven by public servants who look out for their constituents’ welfare? In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it’s said “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Perhaps this observation applies closer to home.
If the formulation of policies such as Plan Bay Area and the county Housing Element were imperfect then subsequent outreach and discussion, initiated by elected officials, should have resolved this. But the pattern of events that unfolded shut down healthy public debate.
Shutting Down Online Debate
Online public discussion has been poisoned. Tactics such as inflammatory speech, name-calling and ridicule intimidate many people attempting to speak out against high-density growth in Marin. Attempts to discuss the facts are met with accusations of being a NIMBY or racist.
By the time people show up to voice their concerns at public meetings they are already frustrated, and then they find their viewpoints ignored and dismissed. Fast growth advocates then have the gall to accuse residents of being uncivil!
I have appealed directly to leaders of sustainability and social equity “grassroots” groups to restore civil conversation – seemingly to no avail. Shutting down the debate seems to serve their interests.
A Tactic Used by Online Trolls and Supervisors Alike
This suppression is not limited to online “trolls.” The supervisors use different tactics to the same suppressive effect. First they volunteered neighborhoods to be targets for significant housing growth without appropriate outreach. Then they repeatedly ignored residents’ pleas to review such designations. Most recently a meeting was set up by Kentfield residents to address their concerns around high density housing – but when Supervisor Rice discovered that the same meeting had a speaker not to her liking on the agenda she backed out.
The neighborhood of Strawberry faced similar issues with one resident having to ask at 13 consecutive meetings to have the issue of removing their neighborhood’s Priority Development Area designation.
The number of residents opposing high-density housing such as Win Cup is becoming increasing. The Marin IJ’s recent unofficial poll showed 91% of Marinites opposed the size of Win Cup. People are raising questions about the process, and in public meetings in Mill Valley, San Rafael City Hall and Marin Civic Center residents opposing fast growth outnumber fast growth supporters.
The Way Forwards: True Democratic Process
Marin needs to have an open conversation – with no inflammatory attacks and suppression of speech. County employees, commissioners and supervisors owe it to the community to follow this critical part of the Democratic process. Any conflicts of interest must be openly declared.
The dialog over Marin’s future for housing and transportation is broken. To avoid falling deeper into the rot of Hamlet’s Denmark we need to restore democratic process – discuss the facts and arrive at the best outcome for all.