Report on 3,716 ABAG Homes and Global Warming:

1. Palo Alto Weekly Guest Opinion

2. Letter to Council


The terrible choice between new homes and global warming

Palo Alto Weekly Guest Opinion by Steve Raney, March 7, 2007, page 13


On Jan. 26, the Weekly reported that "Unrealistic housing numbers worry city." That story emanated from the draft Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) Regional Housing Needs Assessment that allocated 3,716 new housing units for Palo Alto by 2014.

The ABAG report resurfaces a decades-long struggle within Palo Alto relating to the kind and pace of growth for the community that values both its neighbohood environment and the broader global environment. But a deep dilemma underlies the surface give and take.

Palo Alto residents are very involved and vocal about ensuring that the best qualities of their neighborhoods remain in place. It is impossible to be elected to the City Council on a platform of adding 3,716 new housing units.

But, from a global warming standpoint, that's the right thing to do.

Compounding the problem, very few voters understand the direct, large link between housing and global warming.

Councilman Peter Drekmeier does, but that doesn't translate into Peter taking on the suicidal position of advocating for 3,716 new housing units.

"Proximity is more important than the efficiency of a vehicle. Our biggest impact on climate change is driving," Peter says in the Weekly's cover story on climate change last June 21. Hence while it is terrific to buy a Prius it is even more terrific to reduce the miles one drives.

It is only a slight oversimplification to envision that each of the 3,716 housing units that is NOT built in Palo Alto will be built in Tracy (or an equivalent community in terms of distance). Just check the Sunday real-estate section of the Mercury or Chronicle -- the bulk of new housing is being built beyond the first ring of Bay Area foothills, where you can buy a new 3,500-square-foot house on the cheap, relatively speaking.

Hence, each "avoided" Palo Alto home for two workers results in two Tracy-to-Palo Alto commutes, adding 30 tons of carbon dioxide per year (60,000 commute miles).

A recent study by Robert Cervero and Michael Duncan of the University of California, Berkeley, concludes that locating housing next to jobs is the most effective strategy in reducing vehicle mileage (and generation of carbon dioxide). Their conclusions are detailed in an article, "Which Reduces Vehicle Travel More: Jobs-Housing Balance or Retail-Housing Mixing?" in the Autumn 2006 Journal of the American Planning Association.

Palo Alto has arguably the largest mileage-increasing "jobs-housing imbalance" in the Bay Area, needing roughly 90,000 additional residents (added to the current 59,000 population) to "balance" Palo Alto's 87,000 jobs. (Source, City of Palo Alto Web site:  .)

A "good" jobs/housing balance is about one job to every two residents, as many residents do not work (retired, stay-at-home, too young). A "large" jobs/housing imbalance occurs when you have one or more jobs for every one resident, such as in Palo Alto, Emeryville and other "edge cities." Palo Alto has had a jobs-housing ratio of more than two jobs per household (as high as 2.4 jobs per household) since the 1960s due to its explosion of high-tech jobs and constriction on housing development after the big subdivision surge of the 1950s ended.

Thus, Palo Alto faces two terrible choices: (1) adding 3,716 homes in Palo Alto, threatening neighborhood quality, or (2) "protecting" Palo Alto, forcing 3,716 homes out to Tracy, dramatically increasing global warming.

Thus far, council members have only acknowledged the difficulties with the first choice. This may seem puzzling, given the council's recently adopted climate protection policy, but it is no worse than council comments from other high-mileage suburbs. One can only hope that the Palo Alto council will undertake a more innovation-fostering discussion, considering how to make both choices less terrible before acting.

To help things along, here are some "less terrible" practices for adding 3,716 new homes in Palo Alto:

1) Identify the most promising parcels for new housing from the acres and acres of choices within Palo Alto.

2) Ensure that property taxes on new projects will increase sufficiently as well as use "gift agreements" to fully fund incremental city services and education.

3) To reduce carbon dioxide AND neighborhood traffic congestion, apply draconian auto-trip reduction. The 'no new net trips' restriction (imposed on Stanford University by the Palo Alto City Council in the Santa Clara County 2000 General Use Permit for 5 million new square feet of Stanford buildings) could be applied.

By contrast, here are some "less terrible" practices for adding 3,716 new homes in Tracy:

1) Offset the negative carbon impact of each "avoided home" by purchasing "carbon credits." At $30 per year per carbon ton, each avoided home degrades the climate by $900 per year. This offset could be funded by a citywide tax on residents.

2) ABAG's process encourages neighboring cities to work together to meet housing assessments. Hence, Palo Alto could negotiate with Menlo Park, Mountain View and Los Altos Hills to have those cities help meet Palo Alto's 3,716 new-homes assessment, provided Palo Alto provided compensation.

3) To balance jobs and housing, subsidize the re-location of Palo Alto jobs out to Tracy.

4) Subsidize green programs undertaken by Tracy.

It is unclear whether 3,716 homes in Palo Alto or Tracy is worse. The main point is that there are serious trade-offs to decisions made in Palo Alto. Local politics may indeed have global implications, or at least be felt as far as Tracy.


Palo Alto native Steve Raney is lead researcher for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Bay Area suburban sustainability study entitled, "Transforming Office Parks into Transit Villages," . He can be e-mailed at .



Letter to Council

March 7, 2007


Dear Palo Alto City Council,


Suburbia is superb.  U.S. quality of life has increased over past decades because of suburban benefits: single family homes, good schools, etc.  It’s admirable that Stanford Research Park laid the foundation for the rest of Silicon Valley; the world has benefited from associated innovations. Amidst the background of all the goodness of suburbia, we do have a serious suburban global warming problem.  Palo Alto generates far too much carbon per capita, and we absolutely must become more efficient. 


There are many successful, job-rich, high-mileage suburbs that will fight ABAG’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA).  The region needs to “catch a break,” where one courageous council undertakes a thorough RHNA analysis, within a global warming context.  I hope that Palo Alto will be this innovator.  I believe such an approach follows the “innovation emphasis” in Council’s recent annual retreat. 


One possible first step is to send ABAG a letter expressing interest in addressing global warming issues related to regional population growth, and invite ABAG’s Ted Droettboom to brief council on “RHNA, VMT, global warming, and creative answers to RHNA objections.”    


The downside of a thorough RHNA analysis:


The upside of a thorough RHNA analysis:


Further Information Below:


Influential collaborators that could help Council devise innovative RHNA Climate Protection solutions



By no means is there unanimity about the housing – warming link.  Acterra and Sierra Club are wrestling with their internal “smart-growth” versus “no-growth” camps.  Further confusing matters, within both camps there are population reduction advocates.  Sierra Club National Anti-Sprawl campaign leader John Holtzclaw, in a Palo Alto Community Center presentation a couple of years ago, claimed that sustainable world human population was approximately four billion.   



Support for “Innovation,” the focus of Council’s recent annual retreat


The Bald Truth about Suburban Family Energy Consumption



- Steve Raney, Pitman Avenue, Palo Alto

To quote James Howard Kunstler, author: The Long Emergency: "Driving a Prius might induce raptures of eco-moral superiority, but changing the zoning laws would produce a better outcome -- and that's just too hard."

6/11/07 balancing city and school district budgets 

Strategy 1: negotiate "public benefit" settlement with developers:

Palo Alto Daily News, 6/11/07, page 3.  Title: Derry Lane settlement reached, Menlo Park to get $2 million for 'public benefit'.

A $2 million payment to the city of Menlo Park has won some council members' support for a recent settlement between O'Brien Homes and a citizens group that threatened to torpedo the developer's Derry Lane project last year. The payment is intended to benefit the public, so it can be put toward traffic impact fees, open space projects, crosswalks or additional buildings, said Patrick Whitnell, counsel for the League of California Cities.

How to implement: Have a private citizens group negotiate with the developer.  The City cannot ask for so much. 

In this case, the fact that a private citizens group -- Menlo Park Tomorrow -- brokered the deal makes the payment legal, Whitnell said. Otherwise, a city cannot ask for such a payment without facing a possible lawsuit from the developer. "You can't just arbitrarily demand $2 million from a developer," Whitnell said. "There are constitutional restrictions. There needs to be a connection between what the city is asking for and the impact the development will have on the community."

Strategy 2: Collect higher school impact fees via a "Gift Assessement"

Cities such as Pleasanton have implemented special school impact fees in the form of “cooperative fees” and “gift assessments” on new residential construction to provide a high level of school funding.  These fees/assessments are legally complicated, but may be worth investigating.  In 2001, Mary Frances Callan (Superintendent of Pleasanton Unified School District at the time), testified that, “under the new rules set by SB 50, it is the opinion of the Board, District staff and legal counsel that these <cooperative fees / gift assessments> are fine agreements.”

Two City of Pleasanton School Impact Fee links.


Gift Assessements are:


2001 Pleasanton Council Deliberations: See item #6B. 



Signature Properties and Standard Pacific sign an agreement with the City of Pleasanton to design and construct Neal Elementary School.


Mary Frances Callan, Superintendent of the Pleasanton Unified School District, said that under the new rules set by SB 50, it is the opinion of the Board, District staff and legal counsel that these <cooperative fees / gift assessments> are fine agreements. The District is aware that as the agreements are implemented, the stream of funding may be less than it would like. However, the District is confident that if 75-150 homes are built a year, the revenue will be sufficient to carry out short term plans and plan for the long term.  <A $7.75 gift assessment on 150 new 2,500 square foot single family homes is $2.9MM. >


In March 1999, Mr. Freeman < legal counsel for the Pleasanton School District - he does work for PAUSD> said he appeared before Council and discussed the impacts of SB 50. A city can no longer tell a developer to pay a fee or its development will not be approved. However, in Pleasanton there is a group of developers who have volunteered to continue to meet the District's needs.


Mr. Freeman explained that the Gift Agreement has explicit language that states the funds can be used for a broader interpretation of "facilities needs." For instance, is a clock part of a facility? Can you equip a classroom as well as build it? The Gift Agreement says funds can be used for facilities or a facilities driven program. For example, the District may want to build a theater, gymnasium, or foreign languages lab. The developer could say it is not an increase in population that leads to that need. It would certainly enhance the school. The District believes the Gift Agreement allows the funds to be spent for program-driven facilities. The Agreement explicitly states funds cannot be used for teacher salaries or on-going operating costs.