If you enjoyed last year's outrage over Plan Bay Area -- a "smart growth" effort to locate more affordable housing near transit hubs -- you won't want to miss the furor over the next installment of what some see as further government overreach: Senate Bill 1.

The "Sustainable Communities Investment Program," as it's called, may not sound all that threatening, but detractors view it as one more bureaucratic push toward collectivism and social engineering.

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord -- one of the bill's authors -- has heard the charges so often he's begun meeting with constituents to answer their concerns. That's why he was in the board room of the Contra Costa Water District on Friday evening, where about 80 people without Valentine's Day dinner plans brought their skepticism and their questions.

The event was sponsored by the Concord Small Business Association, but it was clear from questions about other communities that interested parties came from well beyond the city limits.

SB 1, the senator said, allows a more narrowly focused version of what we once knew as redevelopment agencies, which were dissolved in 2012. The bill authorizes local entities -- city councils, county boards -- to create financing authorities that can use tax-increment funding for economic development projects aimed at reducing blight and adding affordable multifamily housing.

Those goals are what set off the alarms. Who determines blight? Why keep pushing us out of our single-family homes?


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Of the 17 questions DeSaulnier answered in 45 minutes, four challenged the definition of blight. He said legal process and court rulings frame the definition, which is more demanding now than it was under the RDA standards, and the Fifth Amendment prevents reckless use of eminent domain.

He has nothing against single-family homes. He lives in a four-bedroom home in Concord, where he raised his kids. He insists this bill is about giving residents alternatives. Some don't want larger homes, he said, and others can't afford them.

The reason for developing near transit stations, he added, is to reduce vehicular traffic and greenhouse gas -- as prescribed by SB 375. The population will keep expanding, and it'd be nice if not everyone always drove a car.

"One of the challenges we face is we're going to add more people, and they're going to need places to live," he said. "The idea of all this is to give people choices."

Several questioners wanted to know why the state was forcing this down people's throats. It isn't, DeSaulnier said. It still needs to be signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, and development will happen only if your city council is interested.

Someone wanted to know how SB 1 might change the face of Orinda or Lafayette.

"The communities of Orinda and Lafayette are going to continue to look like communities that are reflective of the people you elect to city council," he said.

A questioner balked at the name of the bill. What's meant by "sustainability"?

"That's a good question," the senator said. "I think we came out with sustainability as a sort of lefty, green, sounds-good thing. As someone 60 years old, I want to leave the good parts of California to my kids and grandkids. Some part of sustainability is how we leave life better for the next generation."

Gee, when you put it that way, it doesn't sound nearly so threatening.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.