A steady gale whipped the long, spring grass, sending waves streaking across the hills near Mount Diablo. "I've always loved that view—right there," said Michael Amorosa, who had come to a stop while walking along Empire Mine Road, a bike path and trail that bisects a suburban wilderness near Antioch on the east slope of the mountain. Amorosa looked west at the peak's summit as it was momentarily framed between the slopes of two sublimely green hills.
Amorosa has lived in Antioch for 31 of his 47 years. Throughout his childhood, he tromped through the open spaces here. "We had all sorts of Huck Finn-type adventures out there," he recalled. He hopes his son and his daughter will be able to walk through these same hills when they're adults.
But Amorosa's wish might never come true. Almost 3,000 unspoiled acres here—open space known as the Sand Creek Focus Area—have been targeted for conversion into suburban neighborhoods, packed with 4,000 homes. Two of the projects, Aviano Farms and The Vineyards at Sand Creek, are already approved and will fill 1,200 houses with residents. Another proposed project, tentatively sized at about 1,300 homes, has been euphemistically named The Ranch by the real estate firm Richland Communities.
"The Ranch would pave over 551 acres of real working ranchland," said Joel Devalcourt, who works with Greenbelt Alliance, an environmental group that strives to stop suburban sprawl and promote construction of new homes in developed urban areas, especially those near transit centers, a type of development called infill or smart growth. Devalcourt is working closely with Amorosa and his neighborhood group—the Antioch Community to Save Sand Creek—to stop the projects.
Their battle is just one of many that have escalated across the East Bay as developers continue to gravitate toward oak-studded real estate, much of it still home to such iconic wildlife as golden eagles and mountain lions. The region's human population is expanding rapidly, and throughout the Bay Area nearly 300,000 undeveloped acres are at risk of being lost to suburban sprawl over the next 30 years, according to a recent analysis by Greenbelt Alliance. Developers particularly covet the hills east and south of Mount Diablo. In total, more than 60,000 acres in Contra Costa County and another 30,000 in Alameda County are threatened.
Already, much of the East Bay has been transformed from pasture, orchard, wetland, and oak woodland into vast suburbs. And with every acre that is graded and paved, imperiled species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, the Alameda whipsnake, the burrowing owl, and the California red-legged frog, lose critical habitat they will never regain.
But those aren't the only impacts associated with building more homes in the Bay Area's rural hinterlands. Most residents of these new housing tracts will have to drive private vehicles to and from their homes. And as most locals know, East Bay roadways simply can't accommodate more vehicles during rush hour.
"The traffic will only get worse as they build up more open space," warned Jim Gibbon, an environmental architect and a smart-growth advocate with the Sierra Club's San Francisco Bay chapter. Additional suburban sprawl and thousands more vehicles on area roads will also worsen the region's greenhouse gas emissions, thereby making it tougher for California to meet its climate change goals.
Backers of the pending projects say the demand for more housing merits the conversion of green space into new homes. "It's a response to Antioch's need for housing," said Aaron Ross-Swain, Bay Area director for Richland Communities. Ross-Swain also argued that not everyone wants to live in apartment buildings or condo complexes in dense urban areas. The Ranch, he said, will fulfill people's desire for traditional single-family homes in a suburban-style setting.
Although The Ranch and the other projects of the Sand Creek Focus Area would be on land technically zoned for development, many residents want to see the area remain open space. Community meetings addressing how to use the land here have drawn loud protests against development. Elected officials, including Antioch's Mayor Pro Tem Lamar Thorpe and Contra Costa County Supervisor Candace Andersen, have also questioned the wisdom of building more new homes on land that is miles from the nearest transit station—a perfect recipe for worsening traffic.
In fact, county and regional planners have determined in recent analyses that the East Bay has enough available acreage within established urban landscapes—including in Oakland and many sites along BART lines—to completely absorb the region's expected population growth.
"We just did an urban limit line update, and we found there's sufficient buildable land within the developed areas," said Andersen, who believes the social value of the East Bay's open space and agricultural land exceeds its value as real estate.
Devalcourt agrees and insists that sacrificing undeveloped open space to new homes is unnecessary. "We don't need to make a deal with the sprawl devil," he said.
The farthest reaches of the East Bay experienced a massive housing boom in the early 2000s, with Brentwood becoming the fastest growing town in California. Huge areas of open space were sacrificed to the explosion, and over a period of 15 years, Brentwood grew from a quiet community of 6,000 people to a small city of more than 50,000.
The subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession put the building boom on hold, but now another one is underway as throngs of people scramble to find places to live in the Bay Area. This time around, Brentwood's neighbor to the south has become one of the most targeted areas to settle. "Dublin is getting gobbled up," Devalcourt said.
As of August 2016, more than 7,000 more homes were slated to be built in Dublin, according to the Greenbelt Alliance report. Many of those homes are now under construction as crews of workers lay down cement and asphalt, place foundations and plumbing systems, and unroll sod onto acres of yard space. Many more homes are finished, unoccupied but ready for new occupants to move in. These squeaky-clean neighborhoods are often named for the very features of the land they replaced: meadows, farms, orchards, vineyards, and olive groves.
Devalcourt, who lives with his family in a small house surrounded by fruit trees and just blocks from a BART station, noted that these neighborhoods of clonelike houses will strand residents miles from the nearest transit hub or grocery store. The northern end of Dublin provides a vivid example around of this kind of development—a traffic-inducing phenomenon that Devalcourt, who says he bikes and BARTs almost everywhere, calls "sprawl vomit."
Gretchen Logue has been watching these homes advance on her community for years. The fifth-generation Contra Costa County resident lives in the Tassajara Valley, at the southern base of Mount Diablo. Her home was built five decades ago in a beautiful crease of land that the 21st century seems to have almost left behind.
Almost—for a development company called FT Land has introduced plans to pave over a significant chunk of real estate that has never before felt the footprint of permanent human residence. The project was first introduced in 2007 under the cheery label "New Farm." It is now billed "Tassajara Parks" and would include 125 homes on 30 acres that are currently zoned for agriculture and are just outside the urban limit line that voters established in 1990 and renewed in 2006.
"We thought when the public voted to create the urban limit line, that meant something," said Richard Fischer, a co-founder with Logue of the Tassajara Valley Preservation Association.
But for now, the law is on the side of the developers. While land outside the urban limit boundary can only be developed with approval from voters, there is an exception to this rule for projects 30 acres or smaller. Such projects need only a four-fifths approval from the county board of supervisors. They must also offer a public benefit—and to meet that requirement, the developer, Samir F. Kawar, has offered to donate more than 600 acres and $4 million to the East Bay Regional Park District.
Though Tassajara Parks is small compared to developments like The Ranch, opponents warn that it disproportionately threatens open space. "This project would be the first to use the [30-acre] legal loophole that could eventually be used countywide," Devalcourt explained.
But David Bowlby, spokesman for the project, contends that the domino effect Devalcourt describes will not take place. That, he said in an email, is because Kawar's land deed will create a "green wall" of public land abutting the current urban limit line. This, according to Bowlby, will make it impossible for any more 30-acre projects like Kawar's to bulb out of the current urban limit line.
East Bay Regional Park District General Manager Bob Doyle, who has been working on open space issues for about 40 years, also thinks the Kawar deal will create a net gain for the area: with the 600-acre land deed to the park system and the "green wall" that Bowlby described. "It's not an impermeable green wall, but it would create a strong buffer against more urbanization," Doyle said.
But Logue feels voters already created such a barrier against more development. "It was always my understanding that the urban limit line was the green wall," Logue said.
In Antioch, the projects that could result in 4,000 new homes in the Sand Creek Focus Area would be plainly within the existing urban limit line. "Citizens of Antioch overwhelmingly voted to designate this area for building," said Ross-Swain of Richland Communities. "So, we believe this project fits the vision that the city has for this property."
Ross-Swain is referring to Measure K, which area voters approved in 2005. However, the ballot language of the initiative, which developers drafted, was arguably misleading and likely created the impression that Measure K would ultimately result in fewer new homes. The Measure K ballot statement read: "A YES vote on Measure 'K' REDUCES TRAFFIC, CONTROLS GROWTH AND HELPS OUR SCHOOLS."
But 12 years later, traffic is getting worse and the East Bay's peripheral cities keep growing. Thorpe, the mayor pro tem in Antioch, conceded that The Ranch, in its tentative planning stages, actually looks good, with its promoters paying attention to wildlife habitat and maintenance of open space and trail access.
But he said it's disingenuous for project backers to argue that voters who approved Measure K wanted a landscape covered with suburbs. "Voters absolutely did not approve 4,000 new homes," he said.
In 1900, the San Francisco Bay Area was a remote clustering of small towns with a total population of about 700,000 people. Today, 7.7 million people live here.
In the last seven years alone, 600,000 new residents have settled in the region. Alameda is the fastest growing of Bay Area counties. Here, 120,000 people found elbow room—and in many cases, vast suburban lawns, swimming pools, and multicar garages—between 2010 and 2015. The county is now home to more than 1.6 million people. Contra Costa County's population jumped from 1 million to almost 1.1 million in the same five-year period. The city and county of San Francisco also grew, from 800,000 people in 2010 to about 870,000 today. But most of this population growth is taking place in suburban areas far from major centers of employment, according to a report released by the California Department of Finance in early May.
The suburban growth is driving traffic congestion to crisis levels as residents commute hours each day to and from work on the Bay Area's overburdened roadways. Traffic is increasingly cited in polls as one of the top reasons that locals want to leave the area. While many towns and cities combat traffic by improving transit systems and supporting housing projects near bus and train stations, traffic is getting worse—and the housing boom in the remote suburbs is directly reversing progress by introducing tens of thousands more people into communities that can only be easily accessed by automobiles. "Sprawl creates traffic," Devalcourt noted. "It's designed to accommodate driving."
The Antioch housing explosion alone could generate 40,000 more car trips every day, because the new residents—probably some 15,000 people—would have no convenient access to BART or other transit lines. The Tassajara Parks project, meanwhile, would generate at least 1,600 car trips daily, according to the environmental impact documents associated with the project. Logue thinks the impact would measure out closer to 2,300 car trips.
And all those car trips promise to do a number on the environment. Matt Vander Sluis, program director of Greenbelt Alliance, points out that vehicles are the largest source of greenhouse gases in the Bay Area. "So finding ways for people to live close to where they work, or near transit lines, has a significant positive effect on quality of life and greenhouse gas emissions," he said.
According to a study from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Bay Area residents who live and work within half a mile of a bus or train stop are 10 times more likely than the average Bay Area resident to use public transportation.
In addition, the group Next 10, which analyzes the relationship between quality of life, the economy, and the environment in California, has calculated that diverting most of the projected suburban development into infill areas would reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 1.79 million metric tons. That would be about the same as removing 378,000 cars from area roads and streets.
Moreover, local governments have determined that there is plenty of space within existing urban zones to accommodate the region's expected population growth in the decades ahead. The Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission concluded in a recent report that the projected population growth of the Bay Area over the next 30 years could be entirely sponged up by existing urban areas. The Contra Costa County Planning and Development Department has concluded the same about the county's own population growth.
And while suburban homeowners can offset emissions by planting trees on their property to absorb and store carbon, Vander Sluis notes that leaving open space as is generates an overall net benefit to the environment. "When we pave over natural and agricultural land, we're ultimately causing more emissions while losing the resources that help sequester carbon from the atmosphere," he said.
When a developer proposes to build on a piece of land, the project usually gets ushered through the laborious codes and processes of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. If county officials identify possible environmental impacts, CEQA law requires that they prescribe mitigation efforts. Often, a developer who proposes to cut down adult trees will be asked to plant a few baby trees or sprout and disperse some acorns. Other times, trees left standing will be formally protected and designated as carbon sponges, the idea being they will now pick up the slack for the trees that fall to chainsaws.
But some environmentalists argue that the California Environmental Quality Act often fails to soften the impacts of suburban sprawl. "You just can't mitigate for destroying a place like this," said Amorosa, as he looked east from Empire Mine Road, across the property that could become The Ranch, at the Sierra Nevada, distantly visible through the haze. "You lose all this forever if you build it up. There's no way around it."
In his lifetime, he has seen three bobcats out here, along with golden and bald eagles. He hopes one day to see one of Mount Diablo's mountain lions, which are probably outnumbered by humans on the order of roughly a million to one. Beyond the region's more charismatic megafauna, there are hundreds of other plant and animal species that occupy this valuable real estate.
The Nature Conservancy has identified the Bay Area as one of the nation's top hotspots of dwindling biodiversity. This status comes for two reasons—rapid development and the fact that the region has so much to lose in the first place. A unique local geography of cold oceanfront dunes, inland waterways, fog-soaked mountains, oak woodland, the temperature moderating effects of the bay and delta, and rain shadows create numerous microclimates and ecological niches that, in turn, support a high density of species, some of which are endemic—meaning they live nowhere else.
Environmentalists worry that many of these plants and animals will be swept aside by developers. Dick Schneider, an Oakland volunteer with the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, believes species like the Alameda whipsnake, the California red-legged frog, the California tiger salamander, the burrowing owl, and the San Joaquin kit fox will eventually vanish from the region.
Schneider has helped introduce about 10 development-related ballot initiatives in the past 16 years, including that which established Dublin's current urban limit line. Voters, he said, almost always choose to stop development of open space.
However, humanity's encroachment may never stop. "The state's population is growing by a million people every three years," he said. "A large fraction of these new residents are settling in the Bay Area. Under this kind of population onslaught, it's unlikely we can save all these species. I can't help but be pessimistic."
But Supervisor Andersen believes there is immeasurable value in leaving unbuilt real estate alone. "It's the open space that provides people in the Bay Area with quality of life," Andersen said. "It's the wildlife—lots of coyotes, mountain lions, beautiful birds."
Thorpe pointed out that developers purchased their land with the understanding that they would be able to develop it. Stopping proposed projects—especially those that would be within existing urban limit lines, like the Antioch proposals—would mean reimbursing the landowners. It would be expensive, but Thorpe said there should be room for negotiations. "There may be options to revert some of this land back to an agriculture zoning," Thorpe said.
People like Amorosa hope that the Bay Area wakes up before it's too late and stops paving over open space so that projects like The Ranch never get built.
"We don't need to keep building houses on land that's been like it is for millions of years," he said.