Video Column: Right Here In The Middle


Posted by on Mon, February 5, 2007

Darin Boville

In this first installment of his new video column,  Neil Merrilees: Right Here In the Middle, Neil explains how neither side of the development divide is addressing our community’s planning crisis. It is available in two video formats: A small Flash format version for older computers or slower connections, and a larger version in Quicktime format for newer computers and faster connections. width= | Quicktime | Flash |

Comment 1
Tue, February 6, 2007 11:46am
Mary Ascher
All my comments

Neil…....I agree with everything you have to say!

As a real estate agent, I can’t tell you how many prospective buyers have said to me…..“I just want to build a small house on a small lot….I don’t want anything big”.  And, these prospective Coastside residents fall into one of two categories:  either the young single or couple who are just starting out and want something affordable, but new…..built to their liking…  or they are future oriented retirees….who are still living and working “over the hill” and who want a beach getaway cottage that they could eventually retire to.

But…..with the minimum lot sizes required in so many neighborhoods (1) the small lot which is available for sale…....can’t be built on without merging with one or sometimes two others or (2) the lots that are so buildable are priced out of their range…...[buildable lots with water are now nearing the $400,000 range].

So we are pricing out both the young and the old.  We are getting a wonderful group of new residents…....but we are also losing a vital segment of our community.

Many of the retirees who live here now are taking their profits and moving to more affordable areas.

I have always maintained that extreme no-growth policies….i.e. lot mergers, minimum lot sizes… have made this real estate market extrememly profitable for the few and virtually unaffordable for the many.

Too bad….....



Thanks for raising this important issue. But I have to disagree with the way you have framed the debate: growth versus no growth.

Nobody is advocating for “no growth.”

The real debate is about building anything, anywhere, anytime versus following the rules set forth in the Coastal Act.

Even if the rules are followed, the Coastside will continue to suffer a slow destruction. But many developers can’t even see fit to follow the meager rules that are in place.

A perfect example is the Big Wave project. The developer is lobbying elected officals to obtain priority water connections to serve the project, even though the MidCoast LCP (the local implementation of the Coastal Act) says that the project does not qualify for priority water.

This lobbying takes place in meetings like the one linked below, where we see the Big Wave developer getting together with elected officals from the HMB City Council and the Coastside County Water District, as well as with realtors (including Ms. Ascher above) to enlist support for a project that doesn’t comply with the rules.

The average citizen has little ability to influence the decisions made by these shadow-government committees.

Meeting of Governnmental Affairs Commitee of Coastside Chamber of Commerce, November 9, 2006

What a shocker! A real estate agent that thinks we need to build more houses! I love it when the people who stand to gain the most from “development” and high home prices tell me how sad it is that prices are so high. Who tells their client to set the price so high? Who takes the increased commission?
There are plenty of houses already for sale on the coast, why do we need to build more?

A contributing factor to high land prices here is that the allowed house size is the second largest on the Peninsula, and the highest in unincorporated San Mateo County.  Big houses also cost more to build.  Double whammy.  Want lower-cost housing?  Reduce the size that’s allowed.

So what does the County propose in the LCP update?  Giving a “size bonus” for building “affordable housing”.  I have yet to see an explanation of how building a bigger house helps make it “affordable”.

But of course Mary Ascher’s position ignores the fundamental issue—there are more people living on this Coastside than the area can support.  The lot merger requirement is a feeble attempt to slightly reduce the buildout population.

In a recent email to me, a local real estate agent tried to argue for housing in a commercial zone by stating that “there’s a shortage of housing in this price range”.  Yeah, let’s do the math.  Say there’s a shortage of 100,000 units on the Peninsula.  Say we destroy the Coastside by wedging in another 100 housing units.  There’s still a shortage of 99,900.  So why ruin the Coastside for a quick buck for a few people, and not even dent the problem?  I guess a past comment of Carl’s needs repeating—he once wrote “We don’t have a shortage of water, we have a longage of people.”  Ditto for housing.  And the Coastside absolutely cannot be the solution to any perceived “housing shortage.”

Miramar could have been an incredibly nice place, if the house size on 10,000 sq ft had been limited to the same as what could be built on 5,000 sq ft.  The large parcel size was intended to preserve views, openness, and allow sensitive areas to be protected.  In 1980, people weren’t building 5,000 sq ft houses on 10,000 sq ft parcels, so nobody thought about the side effect (5,000 sq ft monster houses) that has destroyed Miramar over the last 8 years.

Comment 5
Tue, February 6, 2007 8:23pm
Kami Myles
All my comments


I love the fact that you chose this medium to open such a great dialogue.  As a newcomer to the coast, I love hearing all the different perspectives. I think your dream of keeping housing affordable at the coast has unfortunaly come and gone.

Kami Myles

Comment 6
Tue, February 6, 2007 10:58pm
Lee McKusick
All my comments

Looking forward to the next installment of your editorial.

So, how does the prospect of global warming and the apparent need to drastically reduce CO2 emissions alter your vision of how the coastside will zone, build and grow?

One thing I have thought is it is time to start building houses designed to last 100 years. 

On my house, a 1972 vintage solar water heater outlasted the roof. The whole system had to be removed because the roof was at the end of its’ 20 year lifetime.

The thing I wish we could work towards in zoning and planning and building is more houses that are worth living in, where the real estate and the occupants will can outlast the mortgage term.

I’d have to agree that sustainable housing would go a long way to increasing quality of life here on the coast side! And would suggest that municipalities adopt sustainable building ordinances. This alone could help reduce regional global warming, and would put more money in home owners’ pockets: sustainable buildings tend to be cheaper to maintain:

energy is generated and excess energy is sold back to the power company; gray water is reuse of water already paid for; passive solar pays for itself; fluorescent lightbulbs (which now come in daylight color temperatures) and are much much cheaper than the regular incandescent bulbs, etc.

A few links:
- Sierra Club Cool Cities campaign

- U.S. Green Building Council LEED Certification info

- About sustainable building, programs, resources, etc.

Mr. Lansing makes a statement that, on its face, looks like some sort of universally accepted fact.

“...the MidCoast LCP (the local implementation of the Coastal Act) says that the project (Big Wave) does not qualify for priority water.”

Does it really say that or is that simply Mr. Lansing’s interpretation and he is presenting his interpretation as fact (to perhaps quote himself someday?) ?

He must have missed the discussion of Coastal Act priorities that Mary Bordi originated here:

Does not seem so cut and dried and solid as Mr. Lansing makes it appear, does it?

“shadow-government” - is that like self-appointed government watchdogs who do not run for office but act like they did?

Comment 9
Wed, February 7, 2007 7:52am
Barry Parr
All my comments

Minimum lot sizes and lot merging are not the only culprits.

Even when a lot is kept small, it’s often built out beyond the max, with a townhouse that would be more appropriate in, say, San Francisco. Check out the photos in the following story:

Small houses on small lots have numerous benefits to the community: affordable housing, more population diversity, more-human scale neighborhoods, improved views.

Kevin J. Lansing suggests (02/06  at  03:47 PM):

I have to disagree with the way you have framed the debate: growth versus no growth.

Nobody is advocating for “no growth.”

The real debate is about building anything, anywhere, anytime versus following the rules set forth in the Coastal Act.

Let’s see, if Mr. Lansing can state that nobody is advocating for ‘no-growth’ then I guess someone can also state that nobody is avocating for building anything, anywhere, anytime.

The resident expert in rhetoric can tell us what framework the debate can take from there…

Mr. Ginna,
My comments regarding Big Wave’s eligibility for priority water were based on information provided by County Planner George Bergman at the October 17, 2006 Midcoast LCP hearing.

A summary and a link to a video of that hearing can be found here:

Mr. Ginna:  In the Town Hall thread that you cite, I provided the actual text from the San Mateo County LCP regarding what’s eligible for priority water.  Would you please indicate which language in the LCP allows Big Wave to get priority water?  If Big Wave isn’t one of the enumerated uses, then even though the LCP doesn’t contain the words “Big Wave is not eligible for priority water”, it’s not eligible for priority water.  If it was, the proponents wouldn’t be requesting an LCP amendment to allow it.

In addition, the proponents want two other requirements waved for this project:  1) priority water is only allowed for the part of the project which is the priority use, and in this case that’s a small fraction of the whole project.  2) priority water has to be relinquished if the priority use ends.

The second element is critical.  I don’t really want to have to spell out why.

While Big Wave may be a worthy project, it’s not appropriate to pick tear-jerker projects for sensitive habitat land and then attack opponents for being against the project.  This is essentially the same approach which the County LCP pulls by locating all the “affordable housing sites” in wetlands and other difficult-to-develop areas.  Then the opponents are accused of being against “affordable housing” when they argue for protection of the sensitive habitats or view corridors or whatever.

My recollection is that Big Wave wasn’t a project looking for a site, but rather a site in search of an approvable project.  I’ve lost track of who’s who, but it wasn’t all that long ago that a property owner of that land tried to get approval for massive grading without specifying what the eventual use would be.  Even the County staff told him to come back when he had an actual project.  A few years later, Big Wave pops up.

Comment 13
Wed, February 7, 2007 5:24pm
Carl May
All my comments

Any scheme for human activity should include, at its base, how that activity can be sustained in a place. Anything that cannot be sustained is nothing better than a intractable problem generator over the long term.

Because the coastside is already way beyond sustainability for the kinds of lives we are leading here—including the development, use of resources, and ecosystem services needed to support what we are doing with our lives—adding more lives at any income level only makes the overall situation more insane. You can’t grow your way out of overgrowth, overgrowth being growth beyond what can be sustained in and by a place indefinitely. As it already is with past overgrowth in recent decades, yet more growth of any kind on the midcoast will continue to degrade the fundamental quality of life for us all, though the wealthy (in terms of money and other resources) here will be able to insulate themselves from the most trying consequences longer than the rest of us and the hit-and-run developers and many of their camp followers will move on.

Any objective person who cares at all about the long term knows that what we already need is smart shrinkage of the human population on the coastside and redevelopment for sustainability. Affordable housing and public services need to be handled in that downsized redevelopment, like everything else we might do in an improved artificial landscape by the grace of our natural endowment.

Brainwashed with the “growth ethic”—stated simply “growth is good”? Then learn to think in terms of negative growth if you give a hoot about the future.

Carl May

Comment 14
Thu, February 8, 2007 2:58pm
All my comments

How come the superintendent of schools has allowed 40 foot tall lights to be put up at the ball fields without approval?
Didn’t he learn from his previous mistakes that he has to have approval FIRST???

Maybe HE should go back to school!

Michael Sherman

Going forward, the City of Half Moon Bay could become a ‘cool city’—and decisions such as which type of lighting to install and other energy consumption decisions would be made based on sustainability and low carbon footprint criteria—all easy, low impact ways to stop global warming.

Sierra Club Cool Cities Campaign:

How your city can become a ‘Cool City’:

That’s one way to avoid a ‘surprise’ lighting decision.