A Danville Ballot Measure Sparks Debate Over Open Space

3 min
Measure Y would allow for development and public access to trails on property owned by the Magee family.  (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

Just south of the entrance to Mount Diablo State Park, in the East Bay town of Danville, horses and livestock roam more than 400 acres of emerald-green hillsides, a rare vestige of the Bay Area's agricultural past.

The future of this pastoral land, owned for decades by the Magee family of ranchers, is at stake in one of the region's most controversial measures on the March primary ballot. The debate over the measure has residents split over the benefits (and even the definition) of open space.

If it passes, Measure Y would uphold a plan to turn the privately owned hills into a 69-home development, while unlocking public access to hiking and bike trails.

The ballot fight is an example of the "development paradox" that confronts cities and environmental groups hoping to add or maintain open space in the expensive Bay Area, said Daniel Press, an environmental studies professor at UC Santa Cruz.

"You allow some development to happen and you charge that development in order to finance the preservation itself," said Press, who authored the book "Saving Open Space: The Politics of Local Preservation in California."

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"There is always a net loss in this development-financed or development-led preservation," he added. "The question is, is it an adequate or OK compromise?"

The compromise at the heart of Measure Y would transform 410 acres of private open space into 380 acres of public open space, with 29 acres set aside for the development of single-family homes.

Along Diablo Road, which winds from Danville's town center to the Magee property, signs for and against Measure Y campaign both claim to back "open space," a source of some confusion among local residents who spent a recent Saturday afternoon at the nearby Sycamore Valley Regional Open Space Preserve.

"All I’ve heard is that the open space that they’re trying to vote on with Measure Y is already open space," Mimi Dobrich said.

"We get mailings every day and then we see posters all over the place," said Lee Shapiro, who said he'll be voting for the measure. "I’m not sure what the argument is against it. I can’t figure out the other side’s argument."

The confusion stems from the meaning of the term at the center of the Measure Y debate: open space.

"The same term means different things to different people," Press said. "Technically, that property could be developed. Just because it's open right now reflects past history. So saying it's open space now is a statement about right now and it's not a statement about the future."

The history of the land's current ownership dates back decades. The Magee family has operated the ranch since the middle of the 20th century, receiving tax benefits through California's Williamson Act to keep the land undeveloped.

Past efforts to develop the property have been unsuccessful: In 2016, a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge ruled that a previous project did not properly consider the bicycle safety impacts of building new homes.

In July, the Danville Town Council unanimously approved developer Davidon Homes' plan for the latest development, dubbed Magee Preserve.

Signs for and against Measure Y along Diablo Road in Danville. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

But a group opposing the project, Danville Open Space Committee, gathered thousands of signatures to challenge the project on the March ballot.

"It is blatantly illogical to have a campaign that says we're bringing open space by slamming a 69-home development on open space," said Bob Nealis, a member of the Danville Open Space Committee. "The open space, as you're looking at right now, exists."

Nealis, who lives blocks away from the entrance to the proposed development, argued that the open space benefits being dangled to the public distract from the development's chief impacts: namely the new traffic that will be forced onto the narrow Diablo Road.

"That mile-long stretch of Diablo Road is very windy, very narrow, very dangerous, frankly," said Nealis, who believes the development "adds a tremendous amount of congestion in an already overcrowded, unsafe road."

But to supporters of Measure Y, the Magee land isn't open space, it's private property.

"This view is open right now. It is a stunning vista. But you can't hike here. You can't be an equestrian here," Danville Mayor Karen Stepper said. "It's not your land to use, but it will be when it's owned by East Bay Regional Parks."

The Park District has agreed to take on 213 acres of the proposed open space, the management of which will be paid for by the developer and the project's new residents. Opponents, however, point out that the details on the funding and management of the open space are not enshrined in the ballot language.

Stepper envisions the project reaping new benefits for her town: new bike lanes and stop lights on Diablo Road to mitigate the traffic impact, an extension of wildlife corridors and the creation of hiking and bike trails on the ranch land.

The alternative, Stepper said, could be a future development that dedicates the entire ranch land to more sprawling housing construction.

"That would be 78 homes on five-acre lots, so that doesn’t leave you any room for trails, bikes or even the limitations and the traffic improvements," she said. "So we don’t want to see that happen."

Davidon Homes, the developer, has been trying to drive that message home with a flurry of campaign spending.

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According to campaign filings through the end of January, the Yes on Y committee has spent $428,883 to support the measure. The No on Y committee, in comparison, has spent $32,947 to oppose the project.

The project's proponents have been shrewd to democratize the benefits of the development in their effort to "shape the narrative around how it's not just protecting humble, insignificant little plants," Press said.

"One of the political miscalculations that sometimes open space advocates have done is to advocate for getting land into some preserved status using public funds, but then not allowing for public access," Press said. "It's not popular with a taxpaying public to just lock up some piece of land and say, 'Well, you know, we did a good job for habitat.' That just doesn't play."

Ultimately, Danville residents like Luke Hickey will have to weigh how the changes to the Magee property will affect their use of the land and its surroundings.

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"I do a lot of hiking, I do a lot of trail running, I hike with the kids and the family. So I’d love to have access to the private land," Hickey said. "But I also do a lot of cycling on Diablo Road and I am concerned about the traffic and the bicycle safety."