Wednesday, May 18, 2011

CGF sponsors Community Design Day on the future of South Santa Clara County

The video below is from the Community Design Day that CGF sponsored in Morgan Hill:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tipping points for housing-deficient areas

In a housing deficient area like here in the San Francisco Bay region, it's wrong to simply say any new house anywhere is a good thing.  This is true economically as well as environmentally - a potential house location 10 miles due east of San Jose might sound like a quick jaunt away from Silicon Valley, but that would actually put it in a place with no roads, no services, no groundwater in reach, and no geologically-safe spot to build on.  It wouldn't sell economically, as well as being bad environmentally.

Alternatively, a potential high-density housing location near a train station might appeal to environmentalists but seem too risky economically.  There are different tipping points for different issues, and there's increased opportunities for cooperation where they overlap.

So here are some ideas:

Transportation:  adding housing in an area that has little future prospect to use public transit is unlikely to help the transit situation.  Transportation goes through a tipping point above a certain level of density that can use transit effectively.  Any increase in that density above that point makes transit even more cost effective.  Proximity to good transit also creates a tipping point, where any increase in density is beneficial.  Inner suburbs might be the tipping point level of density for transportation.

Walkability:  making a low density residential area slightly less low-density isn't going to make the area more walkable, it just puts more cars on the roads.  On the other hand, adding more housing to an area that is already walkable means that more people will be using the local stores, making them more financially viable.  The tipping point is when an area is already walkable, or likely to become walkable.  Urban townhouses and brownstones are the tipping point.

Natural open space:  at first glance, there doesn't seem to be a tipping point:  any increase in density decreases open space and habitat potential.  Even a tiny yard might offer potential habitat that an apartment block wouldn't.  However, dense housing removes pressure to construct less dense housing somewhere else. And habitat values for common wildlife decrease rapidly once roads and structures take up more land than natural habitat.  Low-density suburbia probably constitutes a tipping point for natural open space.

Farming:  farming may be even more sensitive to density than natural open space.  Rural residential levels of density, one house per acre or even less, probably constitute a tipping point for farming.

Financial/economic:  up to a certain point, more is better.  Two homes on 50 acre lots are worth more than one on 100 acres.  A tall apartment building might be more risky and appeal to a smaller market segment than a small condo building, however.

So what's the upshot of all this?  From the environmental perspective, somewhere around low density suburbs, maybe two houses per acre, is the point where almost all environmental incentives are to avoid increases in density - in areas at that level of density or less, environmental groups should oppose efforts to add housing.  Somewhere around the level found in inner suburbs, maybe 10 houses per acre, the environmental incentives are to support increases in density and environmental groups should support policies that increase housing.  

And from the inner suburbs up to city areas where multi-story apartments are possible, the environmental and financial interests are closely aligned.

This is all a simplification, of course.  Dense housing in the wrong place is just a mistake.  Natural open space in an urban area near a stream can also be very beneficial given the importance of stream environments.  But it does point to areas of overlap between environmental and developer interests.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Real version of Farmville - a model for local farms?

Here's an interesting experiment in England - a farm is signing up 10,000 subscribers to run their farm, making actual monthly decisions (loosely based on the Facebook game called Farmville):

The farm is on the National Trust’s Wimpole Estate. You’ll be part of a group of 10,000 online Farmers working with farm manager Richard Morris to decide how it should be run. You’ll vote once a month, discuss the issues with other members and explore the world of farming.

The cost 30 British pounds yearly.  Could be an interesting step beyond shares in a Community Supported Agriculture operation, but without the time commitments of some model farms where people put in actual work hours.

We'll see how it goes.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

CGF urges Gilroy to stay involved in the County Habitat Plan

(We sent the letter below to Gilroy's City Council, urging them to reconsider a proposal to withdraw from the County Habitat Plan.  Their decision was to reconsider it a later point.  -Brian)

May 2, 2011

City Council
City of Gilroy

            Re:  Item 10b, Gilroy's participation in the County Habitat Plan

Dear City Council Members;

As an organization representing families in both South County and North County for nearly 50 years, the Committee for Green Foothills urges the City to reconsider the decision to withdraw from the County Habitat Plan before it becomes it becomes impractical to do so.

We note first of all that while the Habitat Plan only covers two-thirds of the County and not the whole region, that is not the end of the process.  We and the other environmental organizations are well aware that similar comprehensive planning must come and will come to North County, and the city governments that participate in the County Habitat Plan at the outset have a much better chance to shape the outline of the plan, and especially its initial operations, than cities that lag behind.  Furthermore, two other habitat plans are in process that cover significant parts of North County (Three Creeks Habitat Conservation Plan and the Stanford HCP) as well as significant efforts to protect burrowing owl habitat in Mountain View, the South Bay Saltponds restoration, and extensive stream restoration/protection projects in Milpitas and other cities not included in the County Habitat Plan.

Simply put, the habitat planning process is equitable between South County and North County, and early participation gives Gilroy a better chance to shape that process.

Second, Gilroy's financial interest and especially recovery of funds invested to date favor its continued participation.   Documents from other agencies make clear the advantage to Gilroy (such as the letter from US Fish and Wildlife pointing out the backlog in processing new HCPs, and pointing out that future increases in capacity for the South County Water Treatment Plant could be permitted under the Habitat Plan for Morgan Hill but not for Gilroy).  Something that has received little attention is the sum of over $450,000 that Gilroy has paid or owes for the Habitat Plan preparation costs to date.  The Habitat Plan allows preparation cost recovery from permit fees incurred over the 50-year course of the Plan, but that recovery won't be available to Gilroy if the City remains outside of the Plan. The costs to complete the Plan for Gilroy over the next year are less than $50,000, so dropping out of the Plan now to save $50,000 will cost the City the $450,000 it could have recovered.

Finally, the US Fish and Wildlife Service letter notes that habitat alterations done without permission under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act will require a permit under Section 10 of the ESA.  In addition to what the letter stated, we would add that the failure to get such a permit means the habitat alteration is a violation of Section 9 of the ESA.  That habitat alteration is already happening – for example, the traffic Gilroy creates through Silicon Valley causes damage to serpentine soil habitat and ESA-listed species using that habitat.  Wildlife agencies, and others, have the ability to enforce Section 9 of the ESA.  No one has yet used that capability because of the progress that seems to be apparent both in Habitat Plan area and in North County for habitat protection, but if Gilroy definitively removes itself from the Habitat Plan process, then it needs to demonstrate what steps it will take to bring the City's actions into compliance with Section 9 of the ESA.

The simplest and most-financially sound way for Gilroy to move forward is to reconsider a withdrawal from the Habitat Plan, making use of the additional information and the opportunity Gilroy will have to control and reduce costs of Plan administration.

Please contact us if you have any questions.

Brian A. Schmidt
Legislative Advocate, Santa Clara County