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Monday, September 01, 2008

California On Verge of Re-Writing the Book on Land-Use--Links Growth Goals and Climate Issues

A bill sponsored by Sacramento's State Senator Darrell Steinberg would change the way California does land-use--fusing the issues of urban growth and global warming. The state would use roughly $12 billion per year in transportation funds as an incentive to steer communities toward land-use policies that contain sprawl.

But it is even more sweeping than that. As the California Progress Report cites broad negotiations between a variety of stakeholders.
"The triumph of this bill reflects months of intense negotiations between major environmental groups, the building industry, affordable housing advocates, and state and local governments. Senator Steinberg has been lauded for bringing these groups, often at war with each other in the past, together for this bill. SB 375 marks the first time major environmental organizations, local governments, major homebuilders and affordable housing advocates have agreed on a plan to account for California’s population growth and achieve AB 32 greenhouse gas emission reduction goals at the same time. In return for a quicker process to approve housing under California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), new development will have to consider transportation in planning."
Senator Steinberg said:
"If California is to fully implement AB 32, we must address how our communities grow. SB 375 will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks and improve Californians’ quality of life through smart, coordinated regional planning. I urge the Governor to sign SB 375.”
The Governor now has to sign the bill, he has not taken a position on it, but has championed some of its goals.

According to one analysis the bill would work like this:
"Under the measure, the state Air Resources Board would establish targets for 17 regions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of a broader campaign to curb global warming. It then would be up to local planning agencies, such as [SACOG] – to help cities and counties implement land-use policies that would meet those goals.

Regional agencies are expected to encourage more compact development, linking residents to transit, jobs and shopping."
The key to this bill though was Steinberg able to forge broad coalitions together.
"The legislation offers builders density concessions, relief from time-consuming and costly environmental reviews, stronger safeguards against litigation aimed at stopping projects, and assurances that proposals complying with general plans will not be arbitrarily derailed."
The California Progress Report quotes the heads of California League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council--both of whom sponsored the bill--along with the Chair of the California Building Industry Association with strong words of support.

One of the key provisions of the bill is taking RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Assessment) and adjusting it to become aligned with the land use plan in that region's Sustainable Communities Strategy which will account for greenhouse gas reduction targets.

The California Progress Report quotes Tom Adams, who is President of the CLVC. He put the bill into historical perspective. The key to this bill is that it puts housing into areas that will decrease drive times. It will create more compact and denser development rather than the continuation of sprawl.
“In my view, SB 375 is the most important land use bill in California since enactment of the Coast Act. It has taken 32 years since that bill was enacted to bring a coalition together who could make major land use change in California. Senator Steinberg has accomplished that in this bill and it is an amazing achievement on his part and we are tremendously grateful for his leadership.

“This is the equation for solving the problems that we face in terms of housing, getting shorter commute times for people. When you have shorter commutes, you reduce vehicle miles traveled. It’s also important to recognize that you reduce traffic congestion.

“What this bill will do is say that regional housing needs assessment and the strategies that will be adopted under the regional transportation planning process will be aligned. The housing distribution throughout the region will be put in locations that will help California achieve its strategic environmental goals of climate policy, air quality, and energy conservation.

“Finally, the bill amends the California Environmental Quality Act, the environmental quality act that is California’s premiere statute for protecting the environment….So that the procedures for environmental review of projects rewards projects that are consistent with strategies that achieve our climate goals, air quality and energy conservation and helps us promote the kinds of transit priority projects that are needed for the future of California.

“Each of these issue areas—land use, the regional housing needs allocation program, and the California Environmental Quality Act are regarded by many people as sacred cows. They certainly are, at a minimum, a minefield for anyone who want to amend them.

“I think to say that we would have just done land use would have been incredible. Or just to have done the housing program or just to have done CEQA. This bill is a trifecta of the impossible. Senator Steinberg has managed to pull together a bill that brings some of the most important and most difficult statutes in the state of California into alignment so that we can achieve housing that is needed, environmental quality, climate policy, air quality, reduced congestion, increased housing choices, and have a better transportation policy for California.”

What does this all mean?

It is difficult to assess what it means for communities like Davis. But I think overall it has several worthwhile goals.

First, we have to start looking toward the development of public and alternative transportation. One of the key hurdles to a good and unified public transportation system in California is our land-use policies that has continued to build out rather than up or create more density. The result is that public transportation is inefficient, it takes too long in many cases to take public transit from the suburbs into the cities. As that changes, we can begin to develop infrastructure that takes us out of our cars.

Second, by building more compactly, by placing precedence on locations that are closer to jobs, we begin to reduce drive times. Frankly, I think most of us would like to eliminate the need for commuting, and this is a good first step.

Third, some may raise eyebrows here, but I think it makes sense, in order to get the other side on board, they attempted to streamline the process of getting approval for projects through CEQA and the environmental review of projects. What this does is say that if projects are consistent with the goals of his project, approval is streamlined and hastened. The goals of the environmental review process are now aligned with achieving reduction of carbon emissions and energy conservations.

This is such a sweeping bill however, that the full consequences of its enactment may not be known for some time. Again, it is unclear how it will impact a place such as Davis. However, even in Davis, the move has been away from sprawl and towards higher density and more infill projects as a means not only to preserve farmland but also to reduce drive times.

One thing that is certainly true, we could not continue with our prior land-use polices of unmitigated sprawl development in the broader sense in California. Encroachment onto farmland not only puts farming at risk, but endangers the environment and increases our dependency on oil. This is a broad step that shows the political skill of Senator Steinberg.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting