In summary

Marin County’s efforts to limit population growth by limiting housing are taking an old turn – refusing to provide water service to new construction.

Marin County, the suburban enclave north of the Golden Gate bridge, isn’t interested in having riff-raff — meaning ordinary Californians — despoil its bucolic ambience.

For the past half-century, Marin’s very affluent residents and their politicians have waged a largely successful campaign, under the guise of environmental consciousness, to slow population growth to a trickle by allowing very little new housing to be built.

Between 1970, when anti-growth sentiment first appeared, and 2010, the county’s population grew by just 22.5% while California’s overall population expanded four times as fast, 89.3%. In the last decade, Marin’s population grew by just 8,000.

The county’s exclusionary attitude has made it a target for the state’s efforts to deal with a chronic lack of housing by ramping up construction. The state Department of Housing and Community Development’s quotas on local governments to plan for housing over the next eight years translate into 14,400 units for Marin, or enough for about 40,000 new residents, most with low to moderate incomes.

That number is shocking to Marin’s residents and leaders, since the county has added just 54,000 people to its population in the last half-century.

Seven years ago, the county’s legislators carried legislation giving Marin a partial exemption from state housing quotas and last year a five-year extension of Marin’s special treatment was buried in a state budget “trailer bill” signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Marin County resident before becoming governor.

Nevertheless, Marin is feeling the pressure to end its quasi-moratorium on housing, and may be returning to an old tactic in response — water supply.

During the 1970s, the county deliberately avoided developing new water supplies. In 1971, 89% of voters rejected a proposed aqueduct from the Russian River and two years later a similar measure was defeated again.

Although a lack of dependable water was a convenient rationale for avoiding new housing, it backfired when a drought struck in the mid-1970s, leaving Marin unable to supply its current population.

The crisis was averted by the emergency construction of a six-mile-long pipeline over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which earned Marin scorn in the media.

“Yes indeed, Marin County residents will have enough water now to fill their canteens when they go on their protest marches to prevent damming of those wild rivers they seem to love so much,” the Oakland Tribune said in an editorial.

Afrterward, Marin made some improvements to its water storage capabilities, but remained dependent on rainfall rather than connecting to one of the state’s larger water suppliers, which would have lessened Marin’s ability to shun housing.

Drought has again descended on the state and Marin’s main water agency has imposed rationing, is considering whether to seek another pipeline, and is on the verge of banning any new water hookups, which would bring housing construction, already scant, to a standstill.

Marin is an example of how local communities that really don’t want the new housing that California desperately needs, especially housing for low- and moderate-income families, block it through indirect tactics.

Even were Marin to zone enough land to meet the state’s quota, specific housing developments could still be blocked by a refusal to supply water. In other communities, design requirements such as parking spaces are often employed to make projects economically unfeasible. In still others, developments are held up by misuse of the California Environmental Quality Act.

It’s something of a guerilla war, with the state pushing Marin and other communities to accept more housing than they want and local leaders figuring out new ways to evade the mandates.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...