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April 4-10, 2007

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Open Mic

Reimagining Marin

By Alex Hinds

Since its adoption in 1973, the Marin countywide plan has helped to preserve Marin's hills and open spaces by containing sprawl and reversing earlier plans for rampant freeway construction and the paving over of our spectacular countryside. While most of the plan has withstood the test of time, a variety of unintended consequences remain concerning traffic congestion, our ongoing addiction to fossil fuels and a lack of affordable housing.

As state law requires, every county and city's general plan must be kept up to date, and Marin County supervisors have twice amended the countywide plan. For the past six years, county planners have met with more than a thousand community members to help revise the plan. As a result, a broad consensus was reached to make "planning sustainable communities" the overarching theme of the current update. In keeping with the tradition of Marin's visionary 1973 plan, the current update has received attention from around the state and the nation.

The proposed plan reflects Marin's environmental sensibility. To our knowledge, it is the first local general plan in the nation to address both global warming and our high consumption of natural resources as demonstrated through a tool called the ecological footprint. Despite our environmental values, the typical Marinite consumes more resources than the average American and almost three times as much as the average Italian. The plan proposes to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and consequent greenhouse gas emissions, to continue to protect our environment, to support our local agricultural producers and to focus additional housing within already developed areas, such as failing strip malls.

The proposed plan includes sections on renewable energy, green building and the public-health implications of how land use contributes to sedentary lifestyles, diabetes and heart disease. The plan encourages access to fresh local foods, and supports walking, biking and the ability to age in place rather than being forced to move. Another innovative feature is a series of benchmarks and targets to enable the community to track progress toward achieving its goals.

The plan continues Marin County's trend for slow, targeted, carefully controlled growth. It anticipates our population expanding at less than 1 percent a year and encourages housing near public transportation, jobs and in community centers. The plan would allow more of our children, service providers, public-safety professionals, healthcare workers, retail clerks and teachers who now drive to Marin from far-flung areas to be able to afford to live here.

The plan celebrates Marin County's cultural history and identifies types of businesses that have historically been a good fit and should be retained and encouraged to expand. While the plan addresses the entire county, including the cities and towns, its regulatory jurisdiction applies only outside town and city limits.

After a series of public outreach meetings, four working groups and 25 public hearings, the latest version of the plan is now in a final series of public hearings at the Marin County Planning Commission. The hearings began this month and will continue through July. Meanwhile, the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors still need to resolve several contentious issues. Should protections be retained or expanded for historic bay lands? How much housing and commercial expansion should be allowed? What strategies should be employed to address the "mansionization" of homes on agricultural land?

Care to join the debate?

Alex Hinds is the community development director for the county of Marin. The Byrne Report will return next week.

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