California Moves on Bill to Curb Sprawl and Emissions

Published: August 28, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO — California, known for its far-ranging suburbs and jam-packed traffic, is close to adopting a law intended to slow the increase in emissions of heat-trapping gases by encouraging housing close to job sites, rail lines and bus stops to shorten the time people spend in their cars.

The measure, which the State Assembly passed on Monday and awaits final approval by the Senate, would be the nation’s most comprehensive effort to reduce sprawl. It would loosely tie tens of billions of dollars in state and federal transportation subsidies to cities’ and counties’ compliance with efforts to slow the inexorable increase in driving. The goal is to encourage housing near current development and to reduce commutes to work.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has not said whether he will sign the bill.

The number of miles driven in California has increased at a rate 50 percent faster than the rate of population growth for the past two decades. Passenger vehicles, which produce about 30 percent of the state’s heat-trapping gases, are the single greatest source of such emissions.

The fragile coalition behind the measure includes some longtime antagonists, in particular homebuilders and leading environmental groups in California. Both called the measure historic.

“What California is doing for the first time,” said Ed Manning, a lobbyist who represents the state’s 25 largest homebuilding companies, “is planning for housing needs, transportation needs and climate-change needs all at the same time.”

Thomas Adams, the board president of California’s League of Conservation Voters, said the changes were “all going to support a development pattern that will help the state meet its climate goals.”

The bill yokes three regulatory and permit processes. One focuses on regional planning: how land use should be split among industry, agriculture, homes, open space and commercial centers. Another governs where roads and bridges are built. A third sets out housing needs and responsibilities — for instance, how much affordable housing a community must allow.

Under the pending measure, the three regulatory and permit processes must be synchronized to meet new goals, set by the state’s Air Resources Board, to reduce heat-trapping gases.

Seventeen regional planning groups from across the state will submit their land-use, transportation and housing plans to the board. If the board rules that a plan will fall short of its emissions targets, then an alternative blueprint for meeting the goals must be developed.

Once state approval is granted, or an alternative plan submitted, billions of dollars in state and federal transportation subsidies can be awarded. The law would allow the money to be distributed even if an alternative plan fails to pass muster.

State Senator Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, said in an interview that he expected the Senate to approve the bill soon.

Mr. Steinberg, who will be the Senate majority leader in the legislative session beginning next year, said Wednesday that he met with Governor Schwarzenegger this week and received “positive signals, no guarantees.”

Environmentalists have long blamed profit-driven land-use planning around the country for creating the expansive, sometimes redundant network of roads that have carved up farmland near urban areas.

They have also praised regional planners in Portland, Ore., for that city’s clustered growth and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly communities.

The tools Portland planners have used are called urban growth boundaries, efforts to control sprawl by encouraging higher density development within an area and largely prohibiting it outside.

These boundaries have gained little traction in California, where developers have seen them as too restrictive and local governments have been jealous of their own planning powers.

Sacramento and San Diego have recently tried to build coalitions to support clustered development.

Most environmental groups strongly support the pending bill. Among them is the Natural Resources Defense Council, a major force in the development two years ago of the landmark state law to limit heat-trapping emissions from all sectors of the economy.

But some groups have expressed reservations, objecting to the relaxation of some existing environmental constraints on developers.

Jan Chatten-Brown, an environmental lawyer in Santa Monica, wrote in an e-mail message that the bill “gives up an important tool” by relaxing some requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act and making it harder for citizen groups to sue developers.

Communities that take part in the process will be able to revise their housing plans every eight years instead of five; developers working with a state-approved plan will have to do less extensive environmental reviews of their projects.

Ms. Chatten-Brown also said the legislation overlapped with some of the provisions of the 2006 law committing the state, by 2020, to a 30 percent reduction in the projected level of emissions of heat-trapping gases.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters estimate that $15 billion to $20 billion in annual federal, state and local transportation grants support highways, bridges, bike paths and light-rail systems.

Because there is no assurance that regions would lose transportation dollars if their plans fail to win state approval, a few environmental groups stayed in a neutral corner.

But Mr. Adams, with the League of Conservation Voters, said that “a land-use bill of this magnitude had not been successful since the 1976 passage of the California Coastal Act.”

(source : the new york times)

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