Local jurisdictions must protect Urban Growth Boundaries

Teri Shore, Sonoma Group

The best way to ensure climate-healthy, wild-fire-safe, diverse and affordable communities is with voter-approved Urban Growth Boundaries (UGB). A UGB is simply a line around a city beyond which urban development is not allowed without approval of the voters.

As we decide how to face climate change, extreme weather and a housing crunch, we need to double down on climate-smart growth near jobs and transit and protection of natural land and water. The Urban Growth Boundary is a proven and critical tool for doing so.

Yet, pressure to sprawl is mounting from developers, some housing advocates and a few elected officials who say that we must choose between protecting natural lands and building housing. It is an outdated and false choice. We can and must do both in climate-smart ways.

The State of California is certainly on our side. The governor and legislature are pushing for climate-smart growth across the state with more funding for affordable homes and mandates to develop neighborhoods close to transit, jobs and schools. Sprawl into the greenbelts is nowhere in the policy mix, yet it many places it continues to spread. That’s why local activists are gearing up to defend UGBs city-by-city and county-by-county and gathering signatures to put new UGBs before the voters.

Climate Healthy UGBs

The climate and environmental benefits of UGBs are clear. By focusing growth inside existing towns and cities, a UGB reduces driving and greenhouse gas emissions; saves money on water, sewer, parks, and roads; protects the environment; reduces wildfire risk; and allows for many types of housing across the income spectrum. And it costs taxpayers nothing.

Cities and towns with distinct boundaries and thriving downtowns, rather than sprawling development, tend to be less dependent on cars, which is good for the climate by reducing tailpipe emissions as well as the community’s health. It’s easier for residents to walk, bike, or take public transit, while also encouraging exercise and decreasing harmful air pollution. A well-planned city also uses less water and energy. Sierra Club spells out these facts in detail in its recent report, Sierra Club California Housing Policy: Meeting Our Housing Needs and Protecting the Environment, available for download here: https://bit.ly/SCC-Housing-Report

UGBs and Wildfire Safety

We’ve seen firsthand during recent wildfires that communities with defined urban boundaries surrounded by greenbelts and farmland are safer and easier to defend than those sprawled out into the forests and wildlands. Firefighters were able to hold back walls of flames on the well-defined edges of Windsor and Healdsburg with UGBs by staging fire-response teams and equipment in the surrounding parks, open space and agriculture.

While there are certainly exceptions, such as Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, research shows that more compact communities are far more wildfire safe overall.

This may seem obvious, but we now have the science that confirms it. Researcher Alexandra Syphard of the Conservation Biology Institute has published extensive research on risk to life and property from wildfire. She found over and over again that the lowest wildfire risk is in the urban areas. The highest wildfire risk is in medium densities, which are often seen in the wildland-urban interface—areas where homes are built near or among lands prone to wildland fire. Upholding UGBs makes a difference. See reference here.

Diverse and Affordable Communities in the UGB

The UGB determines where we build, not what we build. UGBs have not caused the housing crunch. The rest of the Bay Area demonstrates that sprawl does not provide affordability.

The requirements for affordable housing are decided by local elected officials and city staff based on General Plans and zoning code requirements. The current housing crisis across the nation has resulted from multiple factors over decades, including loss of state and federal funding, stagnant wages for most workers and the high costs of labor and materials. There is no simple fix, but building inside the UGB offers a climate-smart solution.

When it comes to the price of homes, even in small cities like Sonoma, a UGB does not inflate the cost.

Market research from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area governments shows that home prices follow the real estate market and is not correlated with UGBs. Just look at the date of the UGB and a lack of any price escalation. Check your city’s or county’s hous-ing prices against the Bay Area median over the past two decades here.

The main reason that developers prefer to build single-family homes on greenfields is because it is more profitable. Single-family homes have been the model for development for many decades and what people wanted. General Plans and zoning codes have favored such development. However, we are now coming to grips with the result of sprawl development and its costs. Radical change is on the way to new, smaller, more sustainable homes. The UGB supports and enhances the way forward by requiring more efficient use of already developed land.

Diversity and UGBs

Urban Growth Boundaries ensure that communities are inclusive and diverse by directing the placement of homes of various types and affordability levels close to shops, services and jobs. Pushing lower-income housing to the edge of town causes separation and more of a burden on families trying to get to work and school every day. Research shows that cities with and without UGBs have roughly the same ethnic balance. UGB cities actually tend to have lower per capita incomes, median home prices, and rates of ownership — meaning that renters are equally at home inside a UGB as home-owners. See reference.

UGB Overview and History

The first urban growth boundary in the Bay Area was established in 1996 in Petaluma. Since then, voters have implemented UGBs in 38 cities across the Bay Area, with growth control measures approved by city councils (not voter approved) in 11 more.

Four of the Bay Area’s nine counties have established urban growth boundaries or urban limit lines, and four others have growth regulations that serve a similar/equivalent purpose. The only county without any kind of geographic growth boundary is San Francisco — understandably.

The UGBs were controversial and divisive the first time around, with environmentalists and communities collecting signatures and campaigning against developers and business who claimed that city-centered growth would kill the economy. Now more than 20 years later, UGBs are proven and accepted across the board by planners, communities and most elected officials as successful.

All nine cities in Sonoma County adopted UGBs more than 20 years ago, and most have renewed them once. Recently, voters in Rohnert Park renewed the existing UGB for another 20 years with an unprecedented 90% majority.

The City of Sonoma is next in line to renew by the end of 2020, but the city council is wavering, due to development pressure to expand into the greenbelt. Sierra Club is working locally to inform the City Council, staff and community that renewing the existing UGB is the right thing to do.

The County of Napa was one of the first entities to adopt a county-wide initiative, Measure J, to protect farms and vineyards from housing development that was renewed in 2008 until 2058. The City of Napa’s UGB was passed by voters in 1973 and never expires. Only the voters can move the boundary with a ballot measure.

Marin County adopted stringent corridor zoning in the 1970s that is not voter approved, but established and enforced through the General Plan and Zoning Code. The City of Novato is the only city in Marin with a voter-approved UGB, which was renewed by the voters in 2017 for another 25 years with unanimous support from the city council, the Sierra Club and 73 percent of the voters.

In Solano County, elected officials and community leaders appear apathetic about renewing Fairfield’s UGB, which expires at the end of 2020. That may be partly due to the success of the UGB as an accepted planning tool. However, if the UGB is not renewed by the voters, the city council will have the power to expand the boundary into the greenbelt for new development at any time — whether for a subdivision or on a project-by-project basis — with a simple 3-2 majority vote. While voters may trust its current city council, they face increasing development pressure. The council will also change in the decades ahead.

New UGBs Needed

As growth spreads across the state, the specter of holding back sprawl has taken on new urgency in places beyond the metropolitan centers.

For example, in the City of Solvang in Santa Barbara County, community activists are ready to begin gathering signatures for a UGB measure on the November 2020 ballot. While neighboring Buellton already has a voter-approved UGB, the county was considering allowing development to spread from Solvang east into the rich farmland of Santa Ynez Valley that seemed safe from urban sprawl not long ago.

On the edge of Silicon Valley in San Benito County, the towns of Hollister and San Juan Baptista have grown tremendously in recent years. Community members and environmentalists are contemplating whether voter-approved UGBs might be in order. Neigh-boring Gilroy passed Measure H several years ago to create an UGB around its city to prevent conversion of open space.

It is likely we will see the need for more UGBs around the state, and perhaps, ultimately, what we need is state legislation that requires urban growth boundaries in every jurisdiction as is the case in Washington and Oregon states.

UGBs: Solution for Climate Resiliency, Wildfire Safety, Open Space, Health & Housing

While UGBs are no longer cutting edge or very controversial, they are essential to a climate resilient future and need our support. Renewing these long-standing growth measures with a vote of the people provides certainty to the community, city council, developers, and landowners for the next generation and beyond.

Renewing or adopting new UGBs to focus new growth inside the city is in line with every local, county, regional, and state climate and housing policy that calls for city-centered growth, affordable housing, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. There is no need to push housing out to the edge of town and sacrifice green fields to provide affordable housing. The UGB forces us to use more innovative ways to create housing for people of all incomes, ages, and cultures.