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Solimar Research

Sierra Club California Blazes Wrong Trail on Urbanism

Josh Stephens on
Mar 6, 2018

John Muir appreciated tall mountains, to the great benefit of California. His successors feel differently about tall buildings, to the potential detriment of California. 

In the article I wrote a few weeks ago on California’s new crop of housing bills, I cited Sierra Club California’s well known opposition to Senate Bill 827, the controversial bill that would encourage dense development around transit stops statewide. Initially, Sierra Club California’s policy advocate Kyle Jones wrote in a letter to SB 827 sponsor Scott Weiner, that the bill might discourage the development of transit if communities equated transit with unwanted dense development, and it might cause displacement of incumbent residents. He called SB 827 “heavy-handed” and, tellingly, he did not encourage Weiner to revise it but rather urged him “to remove this bill from consideration” entirely. 

(The bill is being furiously debated and has already been significantly revised.)

Naturally, many housing advocates jumped on the club for seemingly opposing the type of dense, transit-friendly development that would reduce pollution and, indirectly, prevent sprawl. 

Needless to say, the Sierra Club has done heroic work to conserve natural landscapes, and has done good work in cities too, like supporting public transit in Los Angeles. While its logic may have been a little tortured, at least its opposition to SB 827 has a thread of sense. In fact, APA Legislative Advocate Sande George told me much the same about the possible unintended consequences of mandatory up-zoning. 

Things got weird, though, when I contacted the club for further comment. Rather than reiterate Jones's reasoning, Sierra Club national Communications Director Maggie Kash (based in D.C.) presented a new tack. 

Kash sent me a statement saying that the club was suspicious of anything that infringed on local control. She wrote, "Our concerns are about the mechanism of state-level preemption, which removes local voices from decision-making.” She cited proposed laws in Louisiana and Tennessee in which state law preempted local laws "in an effort to stop local affordable housing mandates.” 

Here’s the problem: the laws Kash cited were, by her own description, designed to downzone. The preemption was against local laws that favored dense development — which the Sierra Club supposedly supports. In other words, those laws didn’t have unintended consequences. They do exactly what their state legislatures designed them to do. 

SB 827, whether you love it or hate it, would do the opposite of those laws. How dumb does Kash think we are? 

The club’s opposition, therefore, takes place in some weird backwards land. It’s like ordering steak tartare and getting angry with the chef for not cooking it well done. 

Its San Francisco chapter has opposed new housing in San Francisco and been accused of putting “politics over the planet.” Market-oriented urban critic Scott Beyer called the Sierra Club’s San Francisco chapter a “bastion of faux environmentalism” and cataloged the chapter’s opposition to dozens of projects that would have added thousands of units to the housing-starved Bay Area. Some of these projects would have caused zero displacement. Treasure Island was a military facility; Candlestick Point used to be Candlestick Park. 

These positions are, in one way or another, reflective of the same older, wealthier constituencies that oppose new development in California generally. These are the folks who are leading the Sierra Club these days. 

What these club leaders may not realize is that they are at odds with the official policies of their own organization. 

In 2000, the club sensibly adopted a national plank opposing sprawl, proclaiming, "sprawl is a pattern of increasingly inefficient and wasteful land use that is devastating environmental and social conditions.” What’s the natural opposite of sprawl? Density, of course. And — what do you know — a separate policy plank calls for just that: "Attractive, compact and efficient urban areas; with densities and mixtures of uses that encourage walking and transit use, and encourage more efficient use of private autos in balance with other transportation modes.”

And what does the Sierra Club think about the jurisdictional element of land use control? The club adopted this policy in 1970 and maintains it to this day: "The Sierra Club supports federal legislation to encourage states to establish statewide land-use plans, and urges all states to begin the preparation of such plans.” That’s right: the organization that is opposing SB 827 on the grounds of local control is the same one that has supported statewide land-use plans for the past 48 years. 

I hate to say it, but, for all the great work the club has done in the past century, I think maybe it is past its prime. A vital, current Sierra Club could do a great deal of good, for both the natural environment and the urban environment. But, I submit that the club has a good deal of reforming to do before that happens. 

Mountains may stand forever, but advocacy groups are fragile. For the good of California and the country -- especially these days -- I hope the Sierra Club rebuilds and refocuses itself before it’s too late.