A Year In Mill Valley

Archive for January, 2017

Thinking About The Future Of Marin County

I was sitting in traffic on 101 the other day, thanking my lucky stars that I don’t have to do it very often.  I live in Mill Valley, and work in San Francisco, and I get to ride my bike to work every day, rain or shine.  When it rains (or it’s too cold) I’ll ride to the Sausalito ferry and read a book on the way to the Ferry Building.  When it’s nicer weather I’ll ride all the way in, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge where I make a habit of taking photos and posting them on Instagram.

At one level, thinking about traffic is easy because you know what you want — less of it.  But when you really start thinking about it you realize it’s a much harder problem.  And like an old sweater, when you pull on one idea you realize it’s connected to this other idea, and another, and another.  Until it’s almost too hard to think about.

And so we find ourselves discussing things piecemeal because it’s easier that way.  Housing at the Seminary in Strawberry, and Measure E, and traffic on 101, and school buses in Mill Valley, and the schooling crisis in Marin City, and lack of affordable housing, and jobs in and around San Francisco, and weekend traffic to Stinson Beach, and parking at Muir Woods, and the increased traffic on the Richmond San Rafael Bridge, without realizing that they are all part of a larger conversation called “What is the future of Marin County, and how do we get there with what we want?”

Creating A Framework For Thinking About The Future

In order to discuss the future, you have to know what it’s comprised of.  And to that end I’ve started a list.  Notice I didn’t say defined a list, rather I’ve just started a list.  That’s because I’m looking to start a conversation, to work together with others interested in the same topics, to find the right set of ideas to talk about, a framework if you will, within which to discuss our collective future.

A List Of The Most Important Topics That Impact The Future Of Marin County

You might wonder why I started this article with an anecdote about traffic.  It’s because traffic is a microcosm of where we are right now, of how we got here, and how we’re going to either dig ourselves in deeper, or dig ourselves out of the coming juggernaut called “increasing population” or “everyone loves California and San Francisco and they’re moving here whether we want them to or not”.

In no particular order, I propose the following ideas for inclusion in a list of the most important topics that will impact the future of Marin County.  I look forward to a discussion of  the pros and cons on any of these issues, as well as pointers to other important issues that I may have overlooked.

(See also “What Do You Want Marin To Be When It Grows Up?“)

Traffic

We know what we want, less of it, but we’re not sure how to get there.  In the short term we can fix most of the morning and evening commute problems by expanding the Sir Francis Drake on and off ramps.  But longer term we’re maxed out.  Once the final 3-lane section around Petaluma is completed, there will be no more 101 expansion possible, not unless we eminent domain room for additional lanes, ​resort to a second deck, or unless self-driving cars solve all of our problems, as some people have suggested.

Jobs

In general more jobs is a good thing.  But more jobs brings more people into the area.  Which means more people looking for their slice of the suburban dream.  Which means more traveling (and traffic) to jobs centers such as San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and the next big job centerOakland.  And because of Prop 13 people are less likely to move from their lower-taxed house and will put up with increased travel distances and times.  Which means we either need to provide new housing in Marin County, or we can continue to expect more through traffic on 101.

Population

Population is a juggernaut we can’t stop, as our existing legal structure does not allow us to tell someone they can’t move to California.  So, while in the very long term (> 100 years) the US may well follow the likes of Japan and the Italy where population is falling, it is unlikely to impact us in California, as the center of the country continues to hollow out.

100 years ago Marin County had a population of about 25,000.  In the intervening years, it has grown from 25,000 to just over 260,000 today.  Over the last 100 years that’s an annual growth rate of 2.37%.  Between 1970, when the population was 206,000 and today, the annual growth rate has been a very low 0.58%, the result in large part of the environmental movement of the 1960′s which stopped the development of Marincello and the suburbanification of West Marin.

Now consider 100 years from now.  If we track against the last 40 years annual growth rate of 0.58%, we will hit a population of 465,000 in 2116.  If instead we track closer to Sonoma County’s last 40 year rate of 1.66%, we will hit 1,350,000.  And if we use the Marin County 100 year annual rate of 2.37% rate we will hit a population of 2,700,000.

You can see where this is going — without thoughtful planning we will live, and may well die, a death of 1000 cuts.

Housing and Land Use Planning

One way to control population in a location such as Marin Country is to control housing, through zoning laws and planning restrictions.  We see this in Bolinas where lack of water is an excuse to deny permits.  Or zoning lands in West Marin as agricultural so they can not be built on.

As laws like the recent SB375 ”Transportation planning: travel demand models: sustainable communities strategy: environmental review.” takes hold, we will see more discussion and likely a lot more dissension around how many people Marin County will and must accommodate in the future, and where that will be.

Transportation Infrastructure

There are three primary travel modes in Marin County — cars, buses and ferries.  Single person car is the primary commuter option at 66%, followed by carpool at 11%, bus at 7% and ferry at 2.5%.  The primary focusvia dollars spent, has been on expanding 101 to accommodate more cars.  This will work until population increases, causing a concomitant traffic increase, at which point we will have to do it all over again.  If we can.

Taxes

Proposition 13 has created a two-tier population in California.  There are those who have been here for 20 years or more, and who are paying very low property taxes.  And there is the more recent population of house buyers who are paying a tax rate commensurate with current housing prices.  This has led to decreased population mobility of older populations who can afford to sit on a house worth millions while contributing nothing extra to the local economy.

This has also led to a general lack of funding for local projects, which impacts land use decisions, and requires the use of regressive parcel taxes to raise money for schools and other local entities, such as libraries.

By way of a simple example, I have good friends who live on the Stanford Campus.  They are both doctors (now retired), and are sitting on a virtual goldmine as they own a house that they could sell tomorrow for $5 million dollars, or more.  But because they moved there in 1970, their property is valued at $174,000, and they pay less than $2800/year in taxes.  They have been heavy users of public facilities, with 5 children going through the Palo Alto school system, two of whom went on to graduate school at UC Berkeley and UCLA.  And even now they have grandchildren living with them who are attending Palo Alto schools today.  All in all a pretty sweet deal for $2800/year.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide if this is fair.  But regardless if it’s fair or not, tax policy will have a huge impact on almost every decision we make regarding Marin County in the future.

Schools

How important are good schools to a community?  And how important are they to property values?  You can see different answers to this question in Southern Marin, where Sausalito and Mill Valley take two different approaches.  Sausalito has never, to my knowledge, funded a parcel tax, whereas Mill Valley has recently passed a renewal of the 2008 Measure A parcel tax which funds 20% of the running expenses of the district.

Because of Prop 13, local districts are reduced to using a regressive parcel tax as their only means of raising money from their communities, because general obligation bonds, which are tied to property values, can only be used for building or renovating facilities, and not for day to day expenses.

The arguments for and against Measure E in Mill Valley, were a microcosm of the arguments for and against school funding in Marin County, and elsewhere.  In Measure E you can also see the changing demographics of older people staying in their Prop 13 protected homes at work.  The previous measure, Measure A, passed in 2008 with a 74% majority.  Measure E just barely squeaked by in 2016 with 66.8%. The question is, what will happen in 2030 when Measure E comes up for renewal and the percentage of older people without children in the district continues to rise?

Affordable Housing and Social Equity

There are two other phrases that one hears when talking about things like housing and taxes and traffic – affordable housing, and social equity.  Both of these raise questions about what is right, what is fair, and whether our primarily capitalist, supply and demand based economy will provide us with the results we desire.  Are there, for example, some overarching goals that we should be considering, and working towards.

Googling for “why do we care about affordable housing in marin county” there were several interesting articles.  Marin County has a program, the Marin IJ has lively discussions, the Interfaith Council has plans, and George Lucas is a hero or a goat, depending on which side of the discussion you’re on.  Affordable housing has close ties to land use planning and transportation infrastructure, as reducing the amount of buildable land in Marin County increases existing housing values and the cost of building on the few remaining parcels, while lack of transportation options means that low-income workers must spend an inordinate percentage of their income on either housing or travel expenses.

Social equity is a relatively new term, which is related to social equality and social justice.  At its most basic, it means “fair access to livelihood, education, and resources; full participation in the political and cultural life of the community; and self-determination in meeting fundamental needs.”

In the abstract it sounds like a good thing, as it’s there to “help agencies make sure that all county residents, especially low-income and disadvantaged communities, receive a fair share of the benefits from transportation investments.”  There are several groups who think that Plan Bay Area could use more social equity goals, as well as more participation by low-income and disadvantaged communities. Whether they are right or not, social equity will likely be a rallying cry for those against the implementation of large portions of Plan Bay Area and SB375.

Continuing the Discussion

This post is, I hope, just the first of a series in which we collectively explore the landscape called “The Future of Marin County”.  In this age of Facebook and Twitter, and blogs like MarinPost.org, I’m looking to do is as a conversation rather than a one-way exposition.

So please, feel free to link this elsewhere.  And I hope you’ll use the comments section to tell us all about your ideas, thoughts and concerns.

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