With the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit project set to come online in 2014, cities on the route in Marin are eligible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to help them plan housing around the train stations.

But not everyone is biting.

Last week the Metropolitan Transportation Commission handed out $1.8 million to cities to provide financial support "for planning processes that seek to increase transit ridership by maximizing the development potential around current or future transit stations and corridors."

The MTC - which is pushing housing and retail around transit hubs to limit car trips - happily handed out the cash to every city that applied for the dollars in Marin and Sonoma. But in Marin only one of the three eligible cities stepped forward: San Rafael. Novato and Larkspur passed, each saying they were not quite ready to embrace the concept until they know more.

San Rafael received $140,000 to plan around a Civic Center Station, which will go in along the west side of Civic Center Drive, and another $388,000 for planning at its downtown station just north the transit center. The city will have to provide a 20 percent match.

"It's not only planning housing, but station access and circulation as well," said Linda Jackson, San Rafael city planner.

The focus for the downtown San Rafael station will not be housing, but parking and finding ways to accommodate train users without tying up downtown. At the Civic Center station, money will be used to develop areas where riders can be dropped off, but additional housing around the station will be looked at as well.

Talk of any development along the rail line has raised concern in the environmental community, some of whom believe the system will act as a catalyst for growth, as developers try to build for those who want to live near a train station.

The worries about growth were so strong that when the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District was being created, specific language was included in the charter to exclude stations in areas that could be developed, such as the St. Vincent's/Silveira site east of Marinwood.

The rail district cannot put stations north of San Rafael in unincorporated areas - land outside cities' limits. Environmentalists - members of the Marin Conservation League in particular - pushed for the language, fearing a rail line could spawn growth in bayland areas, including St. Vincent's/Silveira, Gnoss Field and San Antonio Creek.

But even with guarantees, growth is watched closely by the conservation league.

"We will be concerned about growth-inducing impacts," said Nona Dennis, president of the league. "We recognize some (housing) density is inevitable, but there are all sorts of levels of density, a lot of variables. We will watch it closely, what happens around the stations. The devil is in the details."

Chris Coursey, SMART spokesman, said the rail agency is supportive of high-density housing near its stations.

"We are in favor of good planning and it will help out ridership as well," he said. "It deals with development in a more intelligent way, and that's making sure you provide housing along with transit. What you don't want is sprawl."

But two other cities eligible for the MTC station area funding declined to pursue it, although $700,000 remains available for another year.

In Novato, the city is working on an update of its general plan, which develops rules on how the community grows in coming years. During discussion of the plan, the phrase "small-town character" has come up several times, officials said. City planners were reticent to apply for the MTC development planning money, believing it could "indicate a prejudice in the outcome of the ongoing" discussions on community planning. The Novato stations will likely be along Atherton Avenue and at Hamilton.

In Larkspur, where the City Council historically has been cool to SMART, planners say there doesn't appear to be any land available near the station - just off of Larkspur Landing Circle -to build high-density housing. Additional traffic in the area from new housing could also be an issue.

"The grant is for high-density growth and there just isn't the area to do that, it's tight as it is," said Nancy Kaufman, Larkspur's planning director. "And the City Council is not ready to commit to anything without studying traffic patterns."

Contact Mark Prado via e-mail at mprado@marinij.com