When Anne Hayes wrote in our January 2003 Gardening for Wildlife section that “Habitat doesn’t only mean parks and undeveloped lands; it also means backyards and front yards and side yards and median strips,” perhaps she wasn’t thinking far enough outside the box. Fairfield Residential, a housing development company seeking to build 1,000 low-income units in the Dougherty Valley development in San Ramon, isn’t afraid to be creative, though. The Contra Costa Planning Commission has approved Fairfield’s request to count the balconies, landscaped parking stalls, and roadway access areas in its 350-unit complex toward the open space requirement for this development. And although the total combined square footage of these patches still falls short of the mandated amount, the commission voted to approve a deviation allowing the development to go forward anyway. While the decision seems absurd at first glance, there are mitigating circumstances. Nancy Tatarka, City Council member of San Ramon and member of the Dougherty Valley Oversight Committee, says Fairfield Residential’s affordable housing project is one the city desperately needs. “This is one of those things between affordable housing and open space…. What are you going to do, paint the cement green? It was a tough decision for me to make because the funding for this project was just going to go away [if we didn’t approve it],” says Tatarka. Greenbelt Alliance, a strong advocate of both open space and affordable housing, would frame the choice differently. “It’s another example of a false dichotomy,” says Evelyn Stivers, Greenbelt’s East Bay field representative. She points out that it is the responsibility of the master developer, Shappell Industries, to meet the dual obligation of open space protection and affordable housing. “The county needs to follow through and require the developer to donate enough land to make the project work. Changing the definition of open space will not protect the environment or help us meet our affordable housing needs.” For updates, e-mail Evelyn Stivers at email@example.com.
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