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Priced Out of Public Service

With homes costing an average of more than $1 million, a city councilman in Half Moon Bay decides he no longer can afford to live in the town he's served.

March 29, 2005|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — Sid McCausland has just joined a small, sad fraternity, a brotherhood that is peculiarly Californian: elected officials who have been priced out of the cities they loved enough to serve.

In January, it was official. The average home price in this quaint agricultural town turned pricey Silicon Valley retreat had crested at more than $1 million for the first time.

A few weeks later, McCausland, 64, announced that he was retiring from his day job at the end of March and would have to resign from the City Council because he no longer could afford to live here.

A lifelong public servant who plans to live on his pension, the workaholic McCausland said he faced a tough choice -- putting his retirement income into a huge mortgage and staring at the walls or buying a lakefront house in Alaska for $250,000 and traveling with his wife, Suzanne.

Hello, Anchorage.

McCausland's planned departure is "really just a great illustration of how our society is changing," said Fran Wagstaff, president of the Mid-Peninsula Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that has built the bulk of Half Moon Bay's affordable housing. "Economic diversity is just disappearing.... There's this incredible shift in incomes in California and our country. The middle class is disappearing."

"It says a lot about where our priorities are," said David Buckmaster, and he ought to know. Four years ago, the former mayor of San Carlos left the city where he had grown up because he and his wife, a teacher, thought they could never afford to buy a home or start a family in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Around the same time, the former mayor of Cupertino left the region for similar reasons.

"The biggest challenge is that you are limiting the people who are going to be elected officials," Buckmaster said.

But not everyone has been as sympathetic to McCausland's decision to leave the city where he has rented a home for more than a decade. It is cheaper, McCausland says, to own a home in Alaska than it is to stay in Half Moon Bay and rent. And buying here is out of the question for a couple wanting to have any kind of life on an income that will not rise again.

The reaction to McCausland's impending departure has been swift and hot in this small town on the San Mateo County coast, where civic life can be as nasty as the scenery is beautiful.

It probably didn't help that the words "my retirement income necessitates our move to a region with lower housing costs" were preceded in his resignation letter by such statements as: "During my 40-year career on the fringes of politics, I have never encountered such widespread disrespect for the truth as I have encountered from Half Moon Bay's pro-growthers."

In his one-page letter to Mayor Jim Grady, McCausland warned that the city stands to lose its open space and quiet coastal lifestyle and charged that "the pro-growthers, which includes the local paper, routinely distort every issue and twist every fact in an effort to undermine the credibility of those of us who support controlled growth."

"I said a lot for one page," McCausland acknowledged wryly in a recent interview.

In a column published in the Half Moon Bay Review and Pescadero Pebble shortly after McCausland's announcement, two activists said the councilman had simply gotten what he deserved, that he "and his colleagues in the no-growth faction" had created the city's affordability problem themselves by stunting necessary development.

"Look at your faction's policies, Mr. McCausland," they wrote. "You have forced this upon yourself, and unfortunately the rest of us as well."

The paper's official stance? An editorial called McCausland's resignation letter a "screed." "When he went out, he badmouthed everybody," said Publisher Debra Godshall. "There was more reaction to that than that he was leaving because he couldn't afford to live here."

Half Moon Bay has long been riven by the politics of growth, with two housing developments stalled, average workers priced out of town and a culture of protest so fine-tuned that even plans for a new stoplight face fierce opposition.

When an endangered California red-legged frog was reported on one snake-bit development site, further delaying construction, some believed that it had been planted there.

In fact, there are few things that everyone in Half Moon Bay seems to agree on -- be they no-growth, pro-growth or somewhere in the sparsely populated middle. The main one: City Hall is no place for the faint of heart.

"It's such a cute little town, but the politics is really hardball," said Steve Hyman, a real estate broker who writes a housing column for the Half Moon Bay Review and Pescadero Pebble, whose Jan. 26 installment trumpeted: "Average Coastside home price tops $1 million."

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