Risky Business

According to a study conducted by Greenbelt Alliance in 2005, nearly one out of every 10 acres in the Bay Area is at “high risk” for sprawl development—it’s very likely the land will be developed within the next 10 years. “Medium-risk” includes regions at risk of development within the next 10 to 30 years, and land at “low-risk” is unlikely to be developed for various reasons, including long-term policy protection or irregular geographical features.

Adina Merendender, a conservation biologist at UC Berkeley, believes that the areas at high-risk for development are not the most distressing. “What I worry about is the medium-risk category because I suspect that these areas are actually at high-risk of low-density development,” he says. “The impacts of low-density development are sometimes under-appreciated.” He cites habitat fragmentation, facilitating exotic species invasion, and increasing environmental costs associated with roads and fire protection.

Low-density residential development outside urban boundary services, also known as “exurbia,” is the nation’s fastest growing type of development. Exurbia is usually a result of land division, when undeveloped land is subdivided into smaller pieces and individual owners construct houses. Sonoma County is now the most “parcelized.” Though it appears to have a lesser impact on the environment than high-density sprawl, the overall footprint of exurbia is surprisingly extensive. And as more families become attracted to the tranquil promise of countryside living, exurbia’s impacts on plants and wildlife worsens.

Real estate agent Crystal Broch admits that she is often conflicted by development. “Owning a home seems to be an integral part of the American dream, and the home itself isn’t enough; we want decent-sized yards, open floor plans, walk-in closets,” she says. She believes that the housing industry is not doing much to create a more sustainable solution: “Building up as opposed to building out in sprawl is more expensive and requires a more complex design plan. Plus, buyers aren’t keen on climbing stairs.” Until the housing industry has more of an incentive to build sustainable designs, Broch is not optimistic about major changes.

Putting restrictions on development without creating other housing has unintended effects. Popular areas for tourism such as Napa and Healdsburg risk losing their local workforces as housing becomes increasingly pricey. “Workers in lower wage brackets, necessary to business and local economy, can’t afford to live locally due to the inflated housing market,” says Broch.

Solano County has more at-risk land than other Bay Area counties. Greenbelt Alliance speculates that Solano’s difficulty is that it lies along I-80 and lacked growth policies that protected land in neighboring counties. The county’s Orderly Growth initiative, which prohibits residential development on county land, must be renewed in 2010 to protect half a million acres of land from sprawl. The second largest area of at-risk land is in Sonoma County, where securing a greenbelt depends on voters.

With a million new people expected to arrive in the Bay Area by 2020, it’s more important than ever to focus on issues of land conservation and planning. Designating land at risk is a good start, but the real test is whether Bay Area counties will take the leap to imagine a future with open space, biodiversity—and housing not at odds with the natural world.

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