The battle for California, as seen by bike

Who will speak for the frogs, when the luxury home builder Toll Brothers revs up its bulldozers?

Published February 24, 2007 12:27AM (EST)

They say that frogs are dying all over the world, but you wouldn't know it from the peepers massed together in a pond off of Morgan Territory Road in eastern Contra Costa County. I grew up catching frogs in New England, and I've done my share of tramping around the woods, but I have never heard as loud or impressive a frog orchestra as I did a week ago on a Sunday morning while riding my bicycle. It was a sound that seemed to hail from another century, when nature's fecundity still swarmed, unhindered by human constraints.

The Morgan Territory Road is a hidden wonder of the San Francisco Bay Area. Winding around the north and east slopes of Mount Diablo, through horse farms and along a rushing creek, it becomes progressively narrower and bumpier as it climbs, gradually turning into a one-lane track barely navigable by car. Although little more than 20 or 30 minutes by automobile from Berkeley (if there's no traffic, which is far from assured), once you've left the settled neighborhoods behind and get into the woods, you feel a thousand miles from any metropolis. That Sunday, when I reached the crest, where hiking trails converge on a state park, I was the only human being in sight. I contemplated the signs instructing me on how to distinguish between a rattler and a gopher snake, and then hopped back on my trusty Fuji steed for the magnificent descent into the Tassajara Valley, another region of cattle ranches and quiet farms.

I knew, as I navigated myself progressively closer to civilization, that riding on Tassajara Road would be the least enjoyable part of my trek. There's very little shoulder for a bike to occupy, and the SUVs and pickup trucks whipping their way from Danville to Dublin zoom by at high speed and exhibit little patience for other modes of transportation. I also had a pretty good feeling that the road might be more crowded than it had been the last time I biked it, four years earlier. The Tassajara Valley has been the scene of some epic battles between developers and open space activists in the last 15 years, and while the activists had won some battles, they'd also lost some big ones. I was riding through a region where the line had been drawn, literally, between urban-suburban expansion and the preservation of bucolic open space.

I rode right across that line and into hell.

In the great Central Valley of California, some 18,000 acres of farmland were converted into housing developments between 2002 and 2004. Closer to the Bay Area, in Contra Costa County alone, 13,000 acres of farming and grazing land were converted to non-agricultural uses between 1992 and 2000. As one approaches the outskirts of Alameda county's city of Dublin by bicycle, that conversion takes on a visceral weight that no amount of news articles about the great U.S. housing boom of the early 2000s can convey. Unfinished roads and half-completed developments stretch off into the hills in every direction. And the only reason they weren't a hive of activity as I rode through was because it was Sunday.

Legend has it that Dublin was created at the intersection of two stagecoach routes. But the city, which now sits athwart the intersection of I-580 and I-680, was only incorporated in 1982. It has been growing gangbusters ever since. Dublin, a city currently boasting a population of around 41,000, has authorized the construction of 11,000 new homes in the last decade, by a score of big-name developers.

One name, Toll Brothers, looms over everyone else. Toll is building more than 2,000 homes in Dublin, and Tassajara Road is the epicenter of its efforts. Hell, for me, is a planned community built by Toll, where every monster home has a pair of monster SUVs sitting in front. We hear all the time how Americans constitute only 5 percent of the world's population but consume 25 percent of the world's energy resources. On Tassajara Road, that word is made flesh.

If you follow real estate news, you may have heard the name Toll mentioned with some frequency in recent months. The company bills itself as the nation's premier luxury home builder, and its financial health is often taken as a proxy for the entire homebuilding industry. Which means it has been taking it on the chin. On Thursday, Toll announced that "the weak U.S. housing market drove down its quarterly profit 67 percent."

Not that such woes are likely, in and of themselves, to reduce pressure on farmland in the East Bay. In Florida last week, Toll Brothers chief executive Robert Toll said that, despite the general gloom for the company prospects, there had been some recent sales upticks in Northern California. Million-dollar homes are still selling in Toll's Dublin Ranch developments. Housing busts come and housing busts go, but prime real estate within relatively easy commuting distance to San Francisco will always be a precious commodity.

The paradox that I had plenty of time to think about as I waited for the lights to change at the humongous intersections standing ready for the hordes of cars to come, is that the San Francisco Bay Area can be simultaneously home to such car-centered contemporary culture, and to one of the largest community of progressive activists dedicated to smart growth and ecological sustainability in the world. And while from my corner of the blogosphere I find myself fascinated by such topics as China's environmental chaos and biopiracy in the Amazon rain forest and genetically modified cotton in the Warangal district of India's Andhra Pradesh, right in my backyard, a titanic struggle between the capitalist-driven tendency for unrestrained development and the hard-headedness of Bay Area open space activists is being fought every day.

There are no ultimate victories in this kind of fight. Urban limit lines can be redrawn by a shift at the ballot box or the stroke of a pen. But there are some reasons for optimism. Take for instance, this statement from a Toll executive, referring to the Dublin Ranch development, that somehow manages to be simultaneously self-congratulatory and plaintive.

"We're one of the last single-family, large lot communities that there will be in the Bay Area," said Mark Davis, an assistant vice president at Toll Brothers. "These sorts of developments aren't being approved anymore."

One reason for that is that there is very little room for 2,000-unit plantations of million-dollar homes in the Bay Area after so many decades of development. But another is that public consciousness of what unrestrained growth does to the overall quality of life has been steadily rising for years in Contra Costa County and eastern Alameda, as has exposure of business-as-usual back-scratching deals between local politicians and well-funded home builders. The stretch of 580 from Dublin out to Livermore is notorious for middle of the afternoon traffic jams.

If the lines being drawn around and through the Tassajara Valley can't be held, then what hope is there for anywhere else? That may seem elitist, but it's also cold reality. California is a strange land that prefigures possible futures for the world. The Toll Brothers' Dublin Ranch is one version. The frogs peeping on Morgan Territory Road are another. The struggle to keep one version from destroying all others is eternal.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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