Of all the emails that land in my inbox, none is flavored with more suspicion than those regarding the Association of Bay Area Governments. ABAG, as it is endearingly known, is the 51-year-old regional planning agency for the Bay Area's nine counties and 101 cities that tries through "advocacy, collaboration" and other high-sounding nouns "to advance the quality of life."
It includes one elected representative from every city and county, and aims, among other things, to carve out a long-term vision for a growing population. Opponents have looked at that vision, and they think it stinks.
They see ABAG and its sustainable communities strategy (One Bay Area) as an intrusion on individual rights. They see transit villages, stack-and-pack apartments and low-income housing forced on an unwilling public. They see people herded from their cars and homes into cluster residences near BART stations.
Julie Pierce, Clayton council member and ABAG vice president, concedes the term "smart growth" has been twisted to suggest all future development will be adjacent to mass transit.
"That couldn't be further from the truth," she said. "Sure, we'd like higher transit use where it's available, but we recognize that will not suit the needs of everyone."
I lured her into this discussion after being contacted by Mimi Steel, former Air Force captain and current president of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of Citizens Alliance for Property
Steel, a Castro Valley resident, is among the less extreme critics. She recognizes merit in regional collaboration, but with One Bay Area she fears mission creep. ("They've gone way beyond what was originally envisioned for them." ) Her concern: ABAG has assumed central control of local zoning and housing issues.
"The state tells One Bay Area how many people they need to plan for," she said, "and ABAG tells each city how many housing units it must be prepared to build; how many low-income units, how many moderate-income units and so on."
She said cities are forced to do as told: "The only thing they get to decide is where these high-density houses are going, not whether to have them. If they don't, they lose transportation funds."
Pierce understands the fear that fuels distrust, which some of her constituents have voiced, but says the worries are misplaced. Yes, the state tells ABAG how many housing units to plan for. And, yes, ABAG gives every city a target, "but there is no penalty for noncompliance. Nobody loses transportation funding."
One Bay Area grants are available to cities that develop priority areas near transit access, but there's no punishment for failing to do so. Motivation is a carrot, not a stick.
"Quite a few cities choose to do nothing," she said. "They may not get grant funding, but if they're not building anything, they don't qualify anyway."
The big-picture goal is to prepare for growth in the next 30 years without urban sprawl. Steel gets that, but she's troubled by the top-down decision-making by "a bunch of people who think they know better than us."
Pierce doesn't argue: "If I had designed this process, it would have been more bottom-up, more community-oriented. I think virtually everyone involved would acknowledge that we screwed that up. Next time we do it, we'll know better."
Maybe the two sides are making progress. They finally found something they can agree on.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com