Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - January 8, 2010

Ben Tarver: 1946-2010

Former mayor, champion of Pleasanton's slow-growth policies, dies at 63

by Jeb Bing

Ben Tarver, active in Pleasanton politics for nearly 20 years and the city's mayor from 1992-2000, died Monday in Penn Valley, Calif., where he lived with his wife Jeanie. He was 63.

He was Pleasanton's first "slow growth" mayor, actively supporting measures to slow down new home construction and an outspoken advocate of saving open space and the Pleasanton hills from business and residential development.

Although politicians often campaign on slow growth themes, Tarver actually succeeded in slowing the residential growth momentum, winning City Council backing and broad public support for measures that capped housing at 29,000 units, reined in developers with tighter annual building permit limits at less than 350 a year, down from some earlier years when as many as 1,000 permits were issued, and established rigid city boundary lines to stop further annexation and preserve open space beyond the city limits.

While he won most of his land use and environmental battles, he failed in his effort to block the development of Hacienda Business Park and later Ruby Hill, arguing that they didn't fit in his long-range plan for a less commercially and residentially populated city.

Tarver served on the Pleasanton Planning Commission and then was elected to the City Council in 1988. He was elected mayor in 1992 and again in 1994, 1996 and 1998. In stepping down, he backed his long-time friend and fellow councilman Tom Pico, who was elected mayor in 2000. Shortly after, Tarver retired as head of Information Technology for the city of Concord, moved to Colorado and re-married.

Pleasanton prospered during the Tarver years with the city becoming a prestigious residential and business destination. Housing prices appreciated rapidly and have been among the highest in the East Bay. Downtown rents soared in those good economic years and prospective buyers and tenants were on waiting lists for space in Hacienda Business Park. A vibrant downtown and other prosperous retail centers, including Stoneridge Shopping Center, added to the city's appeal and financial strength during Tarver's tenure.

Early on, Tarver instituted strong fiscal controls and financial accountability under the leadership of Sue Rossi, then the city's financial director. Those policies continue today under City Manager Nelson Fialho and Finance Director Dave Culver, making Pleasanton one of only a few California cities that are still in good fiscal shape despite a mounting state budget deficit and state takeaways of millions of dollars from Pleasanton in recent years.

Higher housing prices hiked property tax assessments, resulting in soaring municipal tax receipts with the city's general fund revenues now about three times the $33 million reported when Tarver was first elected mayor in 1992.

"Clearly, Ben Tarver was a great steward for our city," said former Mayor Pico. "He set a high standard for integrity and did everything possible to protect Pleasanton's future. In the days and years ahead, we will see the continued benefits of his good leadership."

Former Councilwoman Becky Dennis agreed. Like Pico, she was part of Tarver's Dream Team of select council candidates in the early 1990s, although she and Tarver later parted as political allies.

"Ben was pretty much ahead of the curve on many of the growth issues we faced as a city when he became mayor," Dennis said. "Although every mayor talks about growth, he really pursued measures to bring it under control and got the City Council to work to get it done."

In general, Tarver advanced his ideas for Pleasanton even if others disagreed. He often sparred with the business community and developers and there were times when as a councilman he found his proposals lacking any support. As mayor, though, he actively sought volunteers to fill key positions on various city commissions and committees, appointing political friends and foes alike in his effort to provide balance.

He opposed the Ruby Hill development but relented after the planned gated community was approved by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and would have been developed outside of Pleasanton. Reluctantly, and with the urging of Livermore officials who agreed to handle sewer connections but otherwise didn't want to annex Ruby Hill, itself, Tarver cast his vote with a majority on the council to bring Ruby Hill into Pleasanton.

After battling the city and county of San Francisco over its plan to build several thousand homes on the 510-acre vacant and unincorporated Bernal property, Tarver agreed to a 1,900-home development there that would have added more affordable housing and provided the city with an 18-hole public golf course, parks and trails at the developers' expense. At the last minute, however, Dennis recalls, he changed his mind and that early agreement fell apart.

It wasn't until a new council with Pico as mayor that an agreement was made to allow Greenbriar Homes and its associates to buy Bernal from San Francisco and build 581 homes, which it now has done, and also give 318 acres of the Bernal property to the city of Pleasanton free of charge.

Tarver moved to his Vintage Hills home from Martinez in 1974 when the city's population was just over 20,000. He first got involved in city affairs in 1982 as part of Citizens for Balanced Growth, a newly-formed citizens' action committee that was concerned about balanced jobs and housing growth in the Tri-Valley. Then he heard about Hacienda Business Park.

"The more I read and heard about this monstrous park, which was being promoted as the biggest business park west of the Mississippi, the more I felt that it wasn't right," Tarver told the Pleasanton Weekly in an interview. "It wasn't being planned the way it should have been. It wasn't going to be cost effective. There was too much money being spent on streets and sewers ahead of development to make it work."

Tarver supported a voter referendum to block Hacienda's approval. It failed in a 60-40 vote, but his ability to rally such strong support on an anti-development issue made him an instant hero among those who believed Pleasanton was moving too fast again with commercial and housing growth.

Even later when he was stepping down as mayor with Hacienda generating significant tax revenue for Pleasanton, Tarver considered the business park poorly designed.

"Look at what happened," Tarver said. "When the economy went sour in the early 1990s, the owners of Hacienda came to the city for help. Here are the people who assured voters early on that the park would generate jobs and have absolutely no impact on housing. Now, all of a sudden, they had to get retail stores and 1,500 apartments to bail them out."

"Had we done the commercial, industrial general plan review properly with full citizen participation, we would have planned Hacienda with the right mix of residential, retail, business office and other development, with a school and parks. It would have been better."

Just as Hacienda helped Tarver gain prominence in the community, he ran for City Council in 1984 and again in 1986, losing both times. Then he won a surprise appointment to the city Planning Commission by then-Mayor Ken Mercer. That gave Tarver the public visibility and platform needed to win a council seat in 1988, and to campaign for the mayor's post when Mercer stepped down in 1992. Bucking the odds, he beat a former mayor, Frank Brandes, to win the mayor's post. He ran successfully against Brandes again two years later, against Councilwoman Sharrell Michelotti in 1996 and against Jack Hovingh in 1998, winning all contests by large margins.

"Under Ben Tarver, the whole city process opened up," Pico said. "Tarver truly tried to make sure that all sides got represented, even when he made appointments to various committees."

His appointments sometimes raised the eyebrows of even his staunchest supporters. He named Brandes, his longtime opponent, to the San Francisco property task force. He gave Michelotti the coveted Mayor's Award and stunned his no-growth supporters when he also bestowed the Mayor's Award on the developers of Hacienda Business Park: Joe Callahan, Mark Sweeney and Patrick O'Brien.

At Tarver's urging, Pleasanton also became the first Bay Area city to broadcast City Council meetings on community television, which, depending on the issues before the council, has turned out to be some of the best Tuesday night television programming on the air ever since.

He also was a strong advocate for Pleasanton children, working constantly to increase joint uses of school district and city facilities to provide more opportunities for youth. Under Tarver, the city started sharing financial responsibilities for middle school gymnasiums and other facilities that are now open after school for community use.

As part of the slow growth measures he supported, Tarver worked with Pico, Dennis and others to protect the ridgelands, campaigning successfully to prevent a housing and retail development on acreage that is now part of the East Bay Regional Park District.

Among other accomplishments, Tarver also brokered a pay-as-you-go developer fee agreement that provided developer-paid funds upfront for schools, sewers, water lines, street improvements and other infrastructure that would be needed by their proposed construction projects.

A golfing enthusiast, Tarver also formed a golf course advisory committee to develop an 18-hole championship public golf course in Happy Valley. It took years of work to meet stringent regional, state and federal environmental agency requirements, but his effort paid off in 2005 with the dedication of Callippe Preserve Golf Course, an event that brought Tarver back for one of his few visits to Pleasanton after moving away.

City leaders often cite the work of the late Mayor Warren Harding for initiating zoning and planning measures to place large office and retail centers along the Interstate 580 and 680 freeways when they were built, protecting residential neighborhoods and the city's historic downtown. Later, Mercer, the city's longest-serving mayor, was credited with Pleasanton's dynamic growth as a regional business and retail center with a wide mix of housing to accommodate a growing workforce. Tarver's legacy is clearly halting that growth and what some saw as runaway development with measures in place to restrain the city's development, measures that continue today.

Tarver suffered a stroke six weeks ago, but was recovering until Monday morning, when he died. He leaves his wife Jeanie, and three children by his first marriage to Margo Tarver, currently a member of the Pleasanton Library Commission. The children, all grown, are Tiffany, Benjamin IV and Melanie.

No services are planned in Paradise. Arrangements are now being made for a memorial service in Pleasanton. Check www.pleasantonweekly.com for updates.

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