Few local issues generate more controversy than arguments over state-mandated housing elements, which identify land available for affordable housing units. But Orinda drifted into uncharted territory Tuesday night when Councilwoman Eve Phillips asked colleagues to give residents the chance to vote on whether they approve of the latest version of the still-unfinished document.

It seemed a bit like asking cruise ship passengers into the captain”s cockpit midway through a voyage to look over his nautical charts and decide if he knew where he was going.

The proposal was not wholly shocking coming from Phillips, a first-time council member who won election in November on a platform of community engagement. She contends that the council, which is responsible for the document, has not fully embraced public input.

Her colleagues, all with longer tenures, will argue otherwise. That”s why the plan is in its fifth draft, they say, to incorporate suggested changes. They point to community open houses soliciting feedback in June and July, public comment from a half-dozen council meetings and a stack of residents” emails with proposals considered for inclusion.

“I would flatly disagree that there was no public comment or input taken into account,” said Councilman Dean Orr, who must enjoy some community support. He was re-elected, along with incumbent Amy Worth, in November.

A May 31 deadline, by which the state expects a final plan, hangs over the process and makes Phillips” call for an “advisory vote” seem ill-timed, not to mention expensive (anywhere from $31,000 to $54,000, according to a staff report). By law, the earliest an election can take place is 88 days after council approval. Vote tabulation takes 28 more days, so it would be mid-May before a verdict could be returned to the council to figure out what it meant.

If the verdict was “thumbs down,” then what? How would council members know specifically what residents wanted changed?

“It”s better than not having any understanding of where the citizens are,” said Phillips, who suggested that a citizen panel could be formed to draft a new document. Well, sure, more committees are always a great idea.

Mayor Steve Glazer thinks most residents with concerns have been those of “generic discontent” — with state mandates, regional control and big, bad government agencies.

“When we”ve had speakers come up,” he said, “I”ve asked what changes they want in the housing element. Is it something on page 2, paragraph 3, line 10? Give me something to look at so I can see if it”s fair or an overreach. In the vast majority of cases, nobody had any specifics.”

He said concerns over so-called “stack-and-pack housing” are silly. “The site we”ve chosen for this is not even downtown — it”s a ball field near Santa Maria Church.”

He said worries that changes will detract from the community”s charm are misplaced. “For me, this whole process is a checking-of-the-box obligation that the state has mandated. Nobody here wants to change the beauty of our small town and all the values we came here for.”

Once all is said and done, he added, “I don”t think there”s much in this housing element that”s going to create any significant change.”

In the meantime, residents are invited to provide more feedback. But they won”t be asked to vote. Phillips” motion is still waiting for a second.

Contact Tom Barnidge at

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