Marin must fix broken project review process

Marin County has learned some hard lessons about economic development, but we still have a long way to go. A step in the right direction is a new advisory group being convened to review planning processes and how the county interacts with Marin’s businesses and residents. This group was conceived by the county as a result of the Grady Ranch failure and years of contention between planners, applicants and Marin residents.  

Conflicts about specific projects in Marin County that represent jobs, business revenue, traffic, and environmental impact, are exacerbated by what I call “lifestyle” arguments by residents and residential groups. It is important that there is a venue where these arguments can be heard and considered. The arguments against projects are sometimes very articulate, extremely well-considered, legally based in theory, and also emotional in many cases. Rarely are the economics of the proposed project discussed. It is difficult to argue against a new or existing property’s revenue and job creation if the opponent is also a land owner who may or may not have a larger economic use of their own property. Are neighbors impacted by new or expanding projects on adjacent properties? Of course. The challenge for public policy makers is to use data and objectivity to filter perception from reality.

The Grady Ranch project taught us a lot about what’s wrong with local community development and our process must change. We must be explicitly cautious of arguments made by those who oppose construction projects, commercial real estate improvements, and the general entry of new businesses, simply because such projects represent change. The bottom line is that the few can no longer dictate what is best for the County overall -- we must strive for a more balanced, efficient and equitable approach.

 The committee that was recently approved by the Community Development Agency of Marin County can help answer the “efficiency-equity” question in three fundamental ways. 

First, it is important that any information coming to the county in their deliberations about projects and expansions be objective and come from third parties, if possible. As part of the planning process, statements of both economic and community impacts from new projects must be provided by the applicant, where the County of Marin provides resources for that information within its fee structure. Second, the environmental aspects and impacts of a project should adhere to professional appraisals of experts and scientists and not opinions rendered by neighbors alone. If opponents hire independent, scientific agencies to render opinions, they should be heard in equivalent ways. No one should be allowed to politicize a scientific process. To maximize objectivity, this is also true for neighbors who may be experts in a specific area relevant to the project.

To achieve a balanced planning process, equity must mean what is best for the applicant with respect to the entire county, not a subset of the county. Marin County’s environmental groups must be a strategic partner in this process by interacting early with projects. If we are going to hear a voice from the community, we need the proper, objective forum to do so. And lastly, there must be a data-driven, scientific basis for arguments for or against projects. 

If we are to learn anything from Grady Ranch, it’s that the economic future of the County depends on a more efficient and equitable approach to community development....

Robert Eyler, Ph.D. is interim director of the Marin Economic Forum. He can be reached at 415-448-0332.

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