Posted on Tue, Jan. 17, 2006

Two-year planning initiative for Contra Costa never took shape

By Sarah Jane Tribble

As Contra Costa's leaders prepare to ask voters for a revised development boundary, a planning effort that cost taxpayers more than half a million dollars and was meant to guide such discussions has had nary a mention.

The much-lauded effort, called "Shaping Our Future," was paid for mostly by the county and its 19 cities with the hope of creating a unified approach to development.

It unraveled when city representatives refused to sign a compact that would hold them accountable. Plans to create housing databases were never fulfilled and the success of ongoing community cooperation is debatable.

"I finished this whole process by deciding not to look at it as a failure," said project manager Don Blubaugh. "I look at it as a work in progress."

A handful of community leaders who participated in the effort point vaguely to the plan's parting principles as providing an unspoken foundation for ongoing discussions about housing, traffic and workforce development.

The growth issues in eastern Contra Costa and the rising debate about developing the Concord Naval Weapons Station were volatile topics during those countywide discussions several years ago, participants said.

But today, many who were involved in the two-year process have trouble recalling whether specific steps to follow were implemented once the process ended in late 2003, and several admit that the effort's final publication is collecting dust on a shelf.

One donor said that if asked now, he would reconsider his donation.

"Really, we haven't gained that much value out of it," said Chuck Batts, general manager for the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District, which gave $25,000 to the effort.

Money well spent?

Most of those involved are still optimistic, hoping even though the group hasn't met in two years that there will be measurable results someday.

"While it's not always headline-grabbing, and some people may feel like it's sitting on a shelf," said Julie Pierce, former Clayton mayor and chairwoman of the effort's policy committee, "I know that it's not."

Pierce points to current development trends, such as an increase in infill construction, funding for expanding Highway 4 and high-density housing near mass transit stations, as signs that the discussions from "Shaping Our Future" affected local growth.

"Now, would this have happened anyway?" she asked. "Maybe, but I think it has more community acceptance now because of the effort we went through."

The group collected $797,000 between 2002 and 2003, with 26 percent of the money coming from business groups and a state grant. The balance was paid for by the county and its 19 cities.

The county and city contributions were based on a formula of 60 cents per capita using the 2000 U.S. Census. The county paid $91,000. City payments ranged from Concord's $73,000 to Clayton's $6,457.

Ninety percent of the money was used to pay the consultant team, which collected data, created maps and led the group's meetings. Fregonese Calthorpe Associations and other consultants earned $650,000; Blubaugh, the former Walnut Creek city manager, earned $71,000.

The most definitive outcome of the effort was improved communication and understanding among the cities.

"That may not be an accomplishment that some may feel is sufficient, but in politics sometimes you don't get a whole loaf," said Bob McCleary, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, which gave $22,000. "You take what you can get."

Former Walnut Creek mayor and current Councilwoman Gwen Regalia said the effort brought together many leaders who "never thought beyond their borders."

Still, she said, the community talks didn't seem to influence Antioch and Pittsburg, which passed expansions of their own urban limit lines last fall.

"Those areas affect Walnut Creek, which nevertheless can only handle so many cars," Regalia said.

Measurable achievements

When the policy committee ended its work in December 2003, it set forth 15 principles to follow in the coming years.

Those included several measurable efforts, such as creating a housing database to be shared by the cities and county and standardizing a way to determine potential reinvestment land. Neither of those have been achieved, Blubaugh said.

Another principle called for the creation of a trust fund to supplement local affordable housing. Blubaugh said an unrelated group was developing the fund.

The final principle, listed on page 31 of the effort's report, spells out what everyone agrees was the most critical goal of the group: a common vision among the county and municipalities.

At the end of 2003, it became obvious the participants would not agree on the details of how growth should play out throughout the county.

The vision report called for members of the group to sign a compact and the group rejected the idea, removing it from the record and leaving several pages of the report blank.

The effort's leaders saved face by convincing most of the cities to approve the principles, but then the effort tapered.

"I think they left the table with a unified vision but they each had their own version of it," said Blubaugh, who along with a handful of local leaders launched the effort.

More than $60,000 was sent back to the cities and another nearly $8,000 remains relatively untouched in a special account held by the Contra Costa's Mayor's Conference. The total bill for the two-year effort was $727,000.

Still, Blubaugh said, the mapping done by consultants can be resurrected and used in future programs.

Impact on the future

Pittsburg Mayor Michael Kee said no one mentioned the effort's development strategies during his city's recent debate to expand its urban limit line.

"In hindsight it probably should have been something we should have looked at and said, 'How would this fold in?'" said Kee, who was on the effort's policy committee. "But I think the reality of that is people were looking at it as its own issue."

So, is the effort's report collecting dust on a shelf?

"I would hazard to guess that it probably is, especially since it didn't have a unanimous approach," Kee said.

Some say the effort influenced the outcome of Measure J, which voters approved in late 2004 and which requires all Contra Costa cities and the county to abide by a voter-approved urban limit line to receive millions in road repair money.

Contra Costa supervisors are planning to present a revised boundary, or urban limit line, to voters in June, according to the county's community development department.

As for achieving the primary goal of a unified vision, outgoing County Administrator John Sweeten said that goal had not yet been met. But Sweeten, who was on the effort's management team, also held out hope.

"It's in pause, but I think that the goals of 'Shaping Our Future' and the dialogue is a work in process and that's because the issues that it was intended to address have not gone away," Sweeten said.

Sarah Jane Tribble covers East County growth and development. She can be reached at 925-779-7134 or