California Voters Defy Activist Groups, Approve New Home Construction

Published February 1, 2006

Voters in the San Francisco suburbs of Pittsburg and Antioch, reflecting support from key Democratic elected officials, defied the Sierra Club and other activist groups by approving on November 8 two proposed housing developments. The activist groups have vowed to challenge the new communities in every venue possible, including zoning boards, planning commissions, and the courts.

Democrats Turn Pittsburg Tide

In the town of Pittsburg, an East Bay community of 60,000 residents roughly 40 miles east of San Francisco, citizens approved plans for 1,700 new homes on open land above the Concord Naval Weapons Station.

Opponents had argued open land should not be taken for a new housing development. Supporters pointed out the area is already largely developed and population growth demands new home construction.

The tide turned against the Sierra Club and other activist groups when Democratic state Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) and Democratic U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) gave their support to the new community.

The Sierra Club refuses to concede defeat. “The fight is not over in Pittsburg,” said John Rizzo, chairman of the San Francisco chapter of the Sierra Club, as reported in the November 16, 2005 issue of the Contra Costa Times. “We will fight this development proposal at every step.”

Antioch Democrats Key

In a similar initiative also on the November 8 ballot, voters in Antioch, an East Bay community of 100,000 residents just south of Pittsburg, approved a new home community opposed by the Sierra Club and other environmental activist groups.

The new Antioch subdivision, known as Roddy Ranch, will host 700 homes on 850 acres of land. The Roddy Ranch victory was a landslide, with 60 percent of voters, including the city’s Democratic mayor and city council, approving the proposal.

The activist group Greenbelt Alliance pledged to do everything in its power to obstruct the new community. “It’s not over,” said David Reid, East Bay field representative for the Greenbelt Alliance. “The houses still have to go through a lengthy review process and a normal regulatory review process, including an EIR [Environmental Impact Report] and permits from the city and the natural resource agencies,” Reid pointed out.

Housing Becoming Unaffordable

“The median price of a home in the San Francisco Bay area, because of its incredibly tight growth restrictions, is over $700,000 at the moment,” observed Wendell Cox, director of The Public Purpose and a senior fellow for The Heartland Institute. “This is roughly 10 times median household income. By comparison, median U.S. home prices have historically averaged only three times median income. These growth-restricting policies have given San Francisco one of the worst affordable housing crises anywhere in the world.

“Restricting growth in favor of so-called ‘open spaces’ is disastrous to a community,” Cox added. “Not only does affordable housing disappear, but population growth stops as well. The San Francisco Bay area, for example, no longer has a growing population. If community leaders don’t wake up, the region will be left in the competitive dust of the rest of the world.”

Claim Voters Misinformed

Despite voters’ overwhelming support for the Antioch community, Reid justified Greenbelt Alliance’s opposition by asserting area citizens “don’t want to see more cars on the road or more houses on the hillsides.”

Ronald Brown, executive director of Save Mount Diablo, said the Antioch developers had deceived voters. “The developers crafted the title and language of the bill to make it sound like they were a growth control measure, yet they were the ones proposing sprawl. It was very cleverly crafted and very misleading,” said Brown.

Sam Singer, spokesman for the initiative, chastised the Sierra Club and the Greenbelt Alliance for continuing to obstruct the will of voters. “The election was won fair and square,’ Singer told the San Francisco Chronicle for a November 16 story. “We are sorry that they are, I would say, ungracious losers in this election.”

Vote Splits Activists

Even the Sierra Club admitted it might not be wise to keep fighting such a popular project as the proposed Antioch community.

“I hate to say it,” said Mike Daley, conservation director for the Sierra Club, in a December 5 article in the East Bay Business Times, “but with 60 percent of the vote, you have to start wondering if the public has spoken. When it gets up to 60 percent, some strong percentage knew it was Roddy Ranch development.”

The Antioch proposal succeeded, explained Joseph Perkins, president of the Home Builders Association of Northern California, in the East Bay Business Times article, because it “enjoyed the good will of the electorate. The support of the mayor [Democrat Don Freitas] and the council was a huge factor.”

“It is an incredible thing that Antioch and Pittsburg voters have shown foresight and done the right thing here,” said Cox. “It is a vote in favor of families, in favor of affordable housing, and in favor of community vitality. By contrast, the Sierra Club and the Greenbelt Alliance are against people, period.

Cox added, “The Democratic Party in particular should be complimented for its elected officials standing up for the average citizen on this issue.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.