A law firm hired by East Bay environmental groups is calling illegal a controversial proposal for 187 houses coupled with olive orchards in the Tassajara Valley.

The "New Farm" project would breach the Contra Costa County's voter-approved urban growth boundary and open the floodgates for dozens of similar applications, wrote attorney Winter King with San Francisco-based Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger.

Save Mount Diablo and the Greenbelt Alliance, open space advocacy organizations, hired the attorney and presented the findings to the county board of supervisors on Tuesday.

"Don't be confused by the name," Save Mount Diablo Executive Director Ron Brown told the board. "This is not about agriculture. It's a run-of-the-mill estate housing project with olive tree window dressing. It shouldn't be called 'New Farm,' it should be 'Fake Farm.' "

The county is evaluating landowner Samir Kawar's request to create a new zoning designation that would allow the clustering of houses outside the urban limit line near San Ramon in exchange for irrigated orchards and food crops.

The staff recommendation, public hearings and a vote of the board are at least a year away.

But in a move intended to signal their unwavering opposition and put on notice the elected supervisors -- including three up for re-election next year -- the environmentalists mustered the money for the legal opinion and delivered their testimony well ahead of the public hearings.

New Farm spokesman Tom Koch disputed the opponents' characterizations of the project and described the environmentalists' Tuesday appearance an attempt to hijack the public process.

"We think our project has merit on a number of levels, and its goals are consistent with some of the same goals as some our most ardent opponents have talked about, which is the promotion of agriculture, creation of permanent open space and to locate housing near job centers," Koch said. "The project will be over 90 percent open space with dramatically increased agricultural production. And somehow, this is standard sprawl? It's not true."

New Farm is the latest chapter in Contra Costa's ongoing battle over where to build new houses and shops, although the ferocity has slowed in the recession.

The county's open grasslands, particularly in the east, came under heavy development pressure in the late 1990s and early 2000s as builders sought to fill the strong demand for suburban homes.

But the county's voters also consistently uphold county and local urban limit lines. They reaffirmed the boundary in 2006, and residents in San Ramon overwhelmingly rejected in 2010 an expansion of its line that would have included a portion of Tassajara Valley.

Kawar and adjacent landowners initially floated a 6,000-house development in the Tassajara Valley but abandoned the proposal under withering anti-growth sentiment and the county board of supervisors' vote to tighten the urban limit line.

Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com, www.ibabuzz.com/politics or at Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.

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