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Jennifer Gennari Headshot

What's at Risk: Stopping Sprawl by Mapping Land

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Traveling Route 4 west through Eastern Contra Costa is a lesson in abundance -- you pass U-pick cherry groves and citrus orchards and fields of seedlings. And then the two-lane rural road sprouts a sound wall. The freeway's lanes multiply and sandwich-slice houses crowd the fields of corn. The best agricultural land is at risk of becoming bedroom communities 50 miles away from any jobs.

Fortunately, the Bay Area is not L.A.

Plenty of people and groups have worked to limit where new malls and housing occurs. In Brentwood in Contra Costa County, a majority of the people didn't want to lose the surrounding orchards to more houses. With a little help, they realized farmland is vital for their economy and the region. Two years ago, they voted down an attempt to expand the urban limit line, a simple rule passed by residents that determines where development should or shouldn't happen. As in, let's build within our city limits and not where we grow the food we need to eat.

Land is protected from sprawl in two ways: first, (as most people know) conservation groups can preserve land by either buying it outright or buying the rights to develop it. Of the Bay Area's 4.5 million acres, 1.1 million are permanently preserved this way. This method takes a lot of money, however, which lately has been is short supply.

But twice that amount of Bay Area land -- 2.2 million acres -- is protected in a second way that just takes our willpower. Growth management measures, such as urban growth boundaries and hillside protection ordinances that limit where building happens, are rules passed by elected officials and voters. In the last six years, key growth management measures were adopted or renewed throughout Napa, Solano, Sonoma and Contra Costa counties, which saves land for future generations.

Unfortunately, those rules require vigilance so that they aren't broken. More than 322,000 acres are at risk of sprawl development in the next thirty years -- including more than 47,000 acres of Contra Costa County. The Tassajara Valley near San Ramon faces continual development pressure; currently, a developer is proposing a 187-unit subdivision called "New Farm," which is anything but.

Those lands at risk -- over twelve times the size of San Francisco -- deserve protection, and all of the region's open spaces need stewardship and investment to thrive. You can check out where the hot spots are on the Greenbelt Mapper, a new resource that shows where land is zoned for development, where growth management measures are in place, and the many benefits of open space.

Pressure to develop in the wrong places remains. Without investment and defense against development threats, the Bay Area's landscapes will be diminished. And no one wants to see sound walls threading through our corn fields as far as the eye can see.