An embattled proposal to develop new housing in the Tassajara Valley — a vast swath of privately owned land in unincorporated Danville — will raise an important question for Contra Costa County officials: Should development be allowed in areas currently designated as open space?
If approved, the development plan would see the construction of 125 houses on 30 acres in the valley, but the owners would also dedicate 700 undeveloped acres to the East Bay Regional Park District for preservation as open space. Project officials would also build a community park and a sewer pump station.
But the project would require the county to move the “urban limit line,” which marks the boundary between areas that can be developed for residents and businesses and those that can’t. Populating otherwise unfettered land outside that boundary with buildings and people is a major red flag for conservationists who want to ensure the county’s natural land is preserved.
The county Board of Supervisors will review the proposal at a meeting in the near future — an exact date has not been set — but its appointed Planning Commission has already recommended (by a 4-2 vote) that the board deny the project.
In a meeting earlier this month, the commissioners were not swayed by the promise of new housing if it meant developing within the Tassajara Valley, which is known for its natural splendor.
“We have already made the finding not too long ago that there was more than enough land within the urban limit line to meet the housing crisis,” Commissioner Donna Allen said at the June 9 meeting.
The commission’s opposition to the project is a setback for the project’s developers: FT Land, Meach, BI Land and TH Land. The group has pursued the project for years, first proposing a much larger development in 2007. After extensive review, the group in 2016 whittled down the project’s scale from 155 homes to 125.
Along the way, the proposal has continually drawn opposition from conservationists. Last year, the Danville council formally declared it was against the project, though they county has final say over the unincorporated land.
The Greenbelt Alliance, a Bay Area conservation advocacy group, hailed the Planning Commission’s decision as a “major win,” warning that development outside the urban space boundary would expose any future housing to the risk of wildfires and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
“This is a major win in the process of stopping this project and preserving the county’s precious natural and agricultural lands,” Zoe Siegel, the nonprofit’s director of climate resilience, said in a statement.
Some who support the project do so because of the developers’ promise to forever dedicate 700 acres of open space — a formidable tradeoff that would protect against potential even larger-scale developments down the road.
“The park district’s permanent ownership of open space surrounding this development will forever protect against sprawl,” Kristina Kelchner, the district’s assistant general manager, told the planning commission.
Ross Hillesheim, a planning commissioner who voted in favor of the proposal, echoed Kelchner’s point and also praised the developers’ plans to hire only local labor to construct the houses.
“If we strike this down, and in a couple years if the urban limit line is extended, what’s preventing this owner from saying ‘Forget it, I’ll go for 600 acres?’ ” Hillesheim said at the meeting.
But even a local pro-housing group had reservations with the proposal. Kevin Burke of East Bay for Everyone, an urban planning-focused nonprofit, said new homes in the middle of a valley were not the solution to the region’s housing shortage.
“We don’t think that low-density expensive sprawl is going to help housing availability, reduce car dependency or help against climate change,” Burke said at the meeting. Instead, he suggested, developers should fill in pockets of space between existing buildings and towns, so that communities stay in closer proximity and new housing isn’t spread too far apart.
If county supervisors go against the commission’s recommendation and approve the project, they would need a four-fifths vote to move the urban limit line by 30 acres. They wouldn’t need to go through voters.
The boundary was first established in 1990 and voters in 2006 renewed it for another 20 years.
Elsewhere, the precarious boundary between cities and undeveloped land has similarly been the subject of debate. Earlier this month, a Superior Court judge nullified an Antioch-approved measure protecting certain open space against development, but left the city’s own urban limit line in place.