A grassroots ballot initiative is beginning to circle through Danville as a citizens group gathers signatures to strengthen voter rights on future development.
The Save Open Space Danville initiative aims to end the sunset clause on Measure S -- which requires a resident vote on requested land use designation changes to the town's General Plan and is set to expire in 2020 -- and prevent zoning that organizers feel is wrong for agricultural or open space land.
"It's part of what this initiative would do, to extend Measure S in perpetuity," said SOS member Todd Gary. "But it's not enough because current Town Council and town planners aren't enforcing…they're circumventing the protections of Measure S."
Gary cited the ongoing Elworthy West development and highly disputed Summerhill Homes project at Magee Ranch as examples of town officials approving "development that isn't appropriate for land use." The initiative would also require a unanimous vote by the Town Council to change land use designation.
Although no developer has requested a land use change to the General Plan, SOS members are contesting the Plan 2030 update released on Oct. 19 as inconsistent with current planning laws. Under the 2030 plan, developers still need to request a land use change if they would like to develop more structures on land zoned for agricultural uses or as open space, though residents would not vote on the process without petitioning. Instead, amendments would go through a county-mandated review process that includes a majority Town Council vote.
"Twelve years have elapsed, we're kind of in paradigm shift. We're no longer in midst of or coming through an extensive development period, more of a build-out state," Chief of Planning Kevin Gailey said of the update. "It's timely to look at whether the goals and policies of 2005 and 2010 plan are applicable in this process. Policy makers still feel it's a very strong plan, very applicable partially because it's very general."
With regard to development, the 2030 plan encourages clustered residential development (or P-1) to keep homes off hills and ridgelines. It also changes zoning regulations after lands subject to the Williamson Act -- an agricultural preservation act which expires after 10 years or whenever the landowner decides -- expire, allowing for one house per five acre (A-2) zoning. Lands currently subject to the Williamson Act are zoned for one home per 20 acres (A-4).
"Essentially it's a practice that dates back prior to incorporation. County practice was that, as part of the contract, they would rezone the property to A-4," said town Attorney Rob Ewing. "When the property would come out of contract, the current General Plan reads that it would go back to whatever underlying zoning is."
Under the SOS measure, expired Williamson Act lands would retain A-4 zoning while changing zoning allowances on agricultural land would be subject to the same requirements as changing the land use designation. Likewise, the measure "reaffirms that Danville voters get to decide whether to allow clustered residential development."
"The only issue we really have is when town is rezoning and upzoning to permit four times the residential development. The initiative does seek to prevent the town from automatically redesignating open space to one in five acres," Gary said.
Gary continued that the SOS group is not anti-density, but believes there are more appropriate ways to cluster development under P-1.
"You can't put clustered 1/4 acre residential development on land designated as agricultural with minimum lot size requirements to support agriculture," he wrote. "If you want a P-1 development, you have to change the land use designation to a compatible land use (like residential), and that triggers Measure S."
While Ewing said that the placement of homes could affect the character of a town, the notion that A-4 zoning is inappropriate for agricultural land is incorrect. Many properties in Danville entered into Williamson Act contracts before the town was incorporated, he noted.
"In California planning law, the General Plan is the highest level document and things tier down after that. Zoning designation and general plans are different things, changing one doesn't mean changing another," Ewing said. "Measure S doesn't apply to rezoning changes. Agricultural allows for a certain amount of development to occur….Then the question is where, if any, those houses should be developed."
SOS has also criticized the town for its treatment of the 232 acres of open space behind the Elworthy West development. On Aug. 9, East Bay Regional Parks' General Manager Bob Doyle requested that the town postpone approval of the final development map in order to find funding for "a modest parcel assessment to help maintain and patrol the small parking area;" the town approved the map anyway.
Ewing insisted that the town did not help developer KB Homes get out of making an access point and that KB has fulfilled all conditions for approval of the project -- which included giving the land to EPRD and building a staging area above the homes as well as an access road off San Ramon Valley Boulevard. Several years later, after the project had been approved, the parks district asked for additional money and the town said no, Ewing added.
"It's not in the conditions of approval so we have no legal authority to make KB Homes do it," he said, adding that the Parks District said it had a separate agreement with KB. "No one has ever provided proof that that conversation happened. We imposed the conditions exactly as the Parks District asked us to, but at last minute they were looking for more money and I don't blame them for that."
Although the initiative will not appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, SOS Danville hopes to gather enough signatures to call for a special election. State law requires signatures from 15 percent of voters to call a special election and from 10 percent to be put on the ballot for the next general election.
The group has endorsed Bob Nealis, Jim Jelincic and Deanna Sullivan for Town Council as candidates that support the initiative.
"Were not anti-development. We believe in appropriate development and that means following the law. We want development to…protect everybody's rights and interest, both those of property owners who seek to develop their land and the property owners that live nearby," Gary said.