Marooned in a Sea of Homes

Meandering creeks, shady canyons, historical sites, and rare species make the rolling foothills of the Black Diamond Mine Regional Preserve an East Bay treasure. Any fair Saturday turns out park visitors in force, seeking light breezes and an unspoiled landscape. As hikers and bikers crest the hills to gaze at the sweeping eastern vista, something familiar intrudes in the mid-distance—cookie-cutter homes created by developers intent on continuing Antioch’s lock on the list of the region’s top-ten fastest growing cities.
From the sanctity of the preserve, that future seems far off. As the terrain levels at the base of the hills, the big swath of open land that borders the park seems impregnable to the creep of homes—hikers would be excused for thinking it’s part of the park. In reality, this land, once used for grazing, is now known as Future Urban Area 1 (FUA-1), and these quiet acres are about an inch from the bulldozer.
This May, the Antioch City Council will likely pass the plan to allow development of FUA-1, paving the way for construction as early as this summer. The Bay Area’s largest proposed development, with up to 4,000 units, FUA-1 is serving as the quintessential example of Antioch’s elected officials’ attitude toward ever-eastward expansion. “The Antioch City Council looks at sprawling auto-dependent growth as the way to grow,” says Jeremy Madsen of Greenbelt Alliance. “They have a 1950s mentality, where other communities in the area have at least a 1990s approach to growth.”
In Contra Costa County from 1998-2000, 4,798 acres of agricultural and grazing land were swallowed up, according to a study by the Department of Conservation. Antioch, in particular, has grown at a breakneck pace; in 1990 the population stood at around 62,200, while in 2000 it had reached about 90,500. Antioch’s skyrocketing growth is attributed to its abundance of cheap land and, claim some citizens and activists, city officials’ close relations with developers. Critics charge that the city’s laissez-faire stance has attracted sprawl developers, creating a carnival atmosphere of irresponsible growth.
The city annexed the four square miles bordering the Black Diamond Mines in the early 1990s. Now more than ten developers have submitted proposals to build on the acreage. City officials maintain that the  development is necessary to meet the city’s estimated demand for housing. In the eyes of the city council, FUA-1 is just another way in which Antioch is doing its part to mitigate the Bay Area’s housing crisis.
“Frankly, Antioch doesn’t need it,” Madsen says. “They should focus on  developing within the city.” There is  undeveloped acreage within the urban footprint, a fact pointed out by many FUA-1 adversaries, who believe the city council should address housing demand by focusing growth on infill projects. Some suggest revitalizing the downtown as a way to preserve open space while  providing housing for working people. These methods, they point out, take  advantage of existing infrastructure—roads, sewer systems, power lines—or upgrade those elements.
But the strongest opposition from the community comes from the perception that Antioch is plenty crowded already. According to a poll conducted by Citizens for a Better Antioch, 19 in 20 citizens are opposed to FUA-1—mainly due to fears that the development will aggravate existing problems such as traffic congestion and school crowding.
Highway 4, which connects Antioch  with I-80, is notorious for gridlock, and the city projects 70,000 to 140,000 additional car trips a day as a consequence  of FUA-1. Some improvements to the highway are planned.
Other concerns are ecologically based. The site serves as home to a virtual Who’s Who of Contra Costa County’s threatened and endangered species—the San Joaquin kit fox, California red-legged frog, the tiger salamander. Says Brad Olson, an environmental program manager for the East Bay Regional Parks District, “the open-space character would be lost. Isolated pieces of open space scattered throughout the valley would exist, but it would be fragmented and disturbed and lose a lot of its value as a resource for species in the area.” Moreover, access to the wildlife corridor southeast of the park through Lone Tree, Horse, Deer, and Briones valleys connecting with the public land of Round Valley and Los Vaqueros would be significantly limited by FUA-1. “With the development of these movement corridors,” explains Olson,  “the resources in the park would be increasingly isolated.”
A point of special contention is the land that forms the park boundary. The old Higgins Ranch is arguably the most picturesque piece of land, with rolling hills creating breathtaking views perfect for luxury estate homes—exactly what Zeka, one of the primary developers, is planning for the 680-acre parcel. Environmentalists argue that the site is of the greatest ecological sensitivity. This portion of Sand Creek  Valley is habitat for species that do not live in other parts of the valley, says Olson, and it is even more valuable for wildlife because it connects with the preserve.
The East Bay Regional Parks District  is calling for a buffer zone between the acres of homes and Black Diamond Mines. Olson says the buffer, in addition to being an important mitigation for wildlife, presents “a question of aesthetics” as homes would be visible from the hiking paths. He adds that people need some sort of buffer zone to enjoy the park: “People using the trails and campgrounds wouldn’t be as affected by the noise and blight from the development.”
Activists fear that the new suburb could be a catalyst for further sprawl. East of FUA-1 lie two other tracts of open space. Included in the city’s general plan last year, these properties, known as Roddy Ranch and Ginochio, total roughly 2,900 acres and could contain an estimated 2,700 homes. The approval of FUA-1 would act as a step toward the development of these grazing lands.
The council appears determined to sign the papers welcoming the ’dozers. “I’m just waiting for sweetheart deals to come through,” worries Dave Walters, president of Citizens for a Better Antioch, “which would piecemeal the project, making it harder to referendum.” A policy known as the alternative planning process could break up FUA-1 into approximately 6 to 10 smaller developments. All these would be signed off separately, meaning that opponents would have to collect signatures from voters multiple times in last-ditch  efforts to save each parcel.
Madsen believes the partitioning is “another way to get around public opposition. The citizens are very dedicated but they are not professionals. They have jobs and kids and they can’t be attending city council meetings for months on end to oppose each and every piece of development.  The city council knows that.”

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