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Solimar Research

Sierra Club Blog Was Inaccurate and Hyperbolic

Eric Parfrey on
Mar 20, 2018

I’ve always felt that CPDR is an invaluable resource for young (and old planners) trying to make their way through the maze of growth regulations and politics in the state. I have been a planner working in Northern California over the last four decades, working for three counties and spending a dozen years in the private sector. I also spent three years on the Berkeley Planning Commission, where I learned at least as much about the profession as I did in planning graduate school at UC Berkeley. I have also been an activist with the Sierra Club over the last twenty years.

The recent blog post (Sierra Club California Blazes Wrong Trail on Urbanism) about Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB 827 and the Club’s position on the bill was incomplete and, at times, seemed mean-spirited. Some of the logic in at least one of the arguments in the blog also seemed sketchy and not based on actual facts.

We all agree that California is facing a massive affordable housing crisis (which is also manifesting in other states, but the sheer numbers here are staggering). The crisis is calling out for state involvement and positive state leadership. We have been talking about this for some time.

Sierra Club California, which is the organization and lobbying arm in Sacramento, represents over 180,000 members, or about one fifth of all members in the U.S. The blog piece quoted from some national growth and housing related policies that were adopted in 1970 and 2000. However, many are unaware that the state organization has adopted much more detailed housing and growth management policies and positions, which have been in place since 2000. SCC’s Growth Management Guidelines help our state legislative committee and our lobbying staff develop positions on specific bills (and also guide us when we take positions on state and local growth initiatives).

We support the goal of increasing transit-oriented development to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for decades--but we have concerns about the ill-conceived approach in SB 827. The bill is a flawed and unbaked piece of legislation that may never get out of a policy committee without serious revision.

This bill is using the same undemocratic state-level pre-emption tactics that are being used by right-wing legislatures during the Trump era to squash local and progressive laws at the local level.

As the press release from the national Club office that was cited in the blog noted, last year we saw this regressive tactic used in Louisiana and Tennessee in an effort to stop local affordable housing mandates for developers, using the very same blunt instrument -- removal of local zoning authority. There have also been examples applied to block local fracking bans, deregulate factory farms, suppress the minimum wage, and most recently, in a bill that just passed committee in Utah last month, restrict local elected officials’ ability to advocate for public lands protections.

Curiously, the blog seemed to miss the point of these dangerous pre-emption laws related to housing. The blog criticized our staff for pointing to these dangerous laws and then argued unconvincingly that these very laws were “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.”

This is hyperbole and overwrought.

The blog linked to the background news article and op-ed that described which local inclusionary housing programs were being attacked in Louisiana and Tennessee. Notably, prominent planning groups such as the American Institute of Certified Planners (I am a member) are actively opposed to these laws.

The faulty logic expressed in the blog seems to assume that any housing project that is subject to these inclusionary ordinances are automatically multiple family, denser projects.

No. The way many inclusionary housing programs work, the requirement to provide affordable units within the project (or pay an in-lieu fee) apply to all housing of a certain size, including conventional single-family home subdivisions. There is no evidence that the right wingers are trying to overturn local inclusionary laws because they force higher densities; the legislators are opposed to local agencies requiring developers to provide affordable units in their projects, because they think it’s bad for business and/or some sort of socialistic tactic.

The blog then veers off into an ad hominen attack on Club activists in San Francisco citing a single disgruntled blogger. The blog also cites a dated 2015 SF Chronicle news article about the failed attempt by local Republicans, real estate interests, and others to stage a takeover coup of the local SF group. Needless to say, the attempt fizzled, because these people were not credible.

The blog’s criticism of the positions taken on local development projects by SF Club activists is inaccurate and mean-spirited, especially the comments that these activists 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 fact, these leaders have supported high-density development in San Francisco, a city that is currently exceeding its State recommended housing allocation by over 200%.

Parfrey is chair of the Sierra Club California Executive Committee. He can be reached at parfrey@sbcglobal.net

 

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