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Solimar Research

California's First Sustainable Communities Strategy Comes Under Fire

Josh Stephens on
Feb 11, 2012

Last year, the San Diego Association of Governments released the state's first Sustainable Communities Strategy, which Senate Bill 375 requires of California's metropolitan planning organizations. SANDAG officials hailed the SCS, coupled to its Regional Transportation Plan, as a bold step towards reducing sprawl and meeting the per capita emissions reductions targets that the California Air Resources Board had set. 

Not so fast, say a group of opponents, including a coalition of environmental groups and Attorney General Kamala Harris.

A coalition of environmental groups -- including the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and Cleveland National Forest Foundation -- filed a lawsuit alleging that SANDAG's SCS not only fails to meet SB 375's greenhouse gas emissions targets but also violates the California Environmental Quality Act.

Whereas SB 375 merely requires MPOs to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, CEQA requires a thorough analysis of impacts and mitigation measures for all environmental issues, including air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. On that count, plaintiffs say, SANDAG has fallen short. 

The suit contends that SANDAG's SCS pays only cursory attention to SB 375's goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled through compact development and decreased use of single-occupancy motor vehicles. Most notably, the plaintiffs argue, the plan calls for the construction of new highway lanes at the expense of development of new rail lines and other forms of public transit and that it does so without the impacts analysis and mitigation alternatives that CEQA requires. 

SANDAG planners contend that plaintiffs miss the point of the planned highway improvements. Most of the new lanes are planned as high-occupancy lanes, which will serve both carpools and public buses. Two highways that will be expanded for HOV lanes are I-15 and I-805. 

"What we see is transportation planning resembling what we used to see in the 1960s," said Rachel Hooper, a partner at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger and lead attorney for the plaintiffs, "emphasizing planning for the auto, freeway building and expansion rather than a focus on public transportation and transit."

"I'm not sure whether they understand the fact that we're going to be running bus rapid transit on those lanes," said Charles "Muggs" Stoll, SANDAG's director of land use. "They just say, oh, you're investing in freeways."

Harris joined the suit last month, thus setting up a confrontation between SANDAG and the state over what is arguably the most significant planning and environmental initiative of the next generation. Last year, Harris' office sent a letter with concerns about the draft SCS. SANDAG officials say that they responded to each of Harris' concerns, but "obviously not to the attorney general's satisfaction," said Stoll.

Harris' office declined to comment for this article. 

The outcome of the suit – whether it goes to court or whether SANDAG and plaintiffs can reach a compromise – bears heavily on the statewide effort to pursue sustainable regional plans. 

"I think it says that it's sort of business as usual, which is exactly what SB 375 was intended to change," said Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning & Conservation League and former executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper. "Because it is first out of the gate, I think it's really important to set a good example for all the SCS's coming forward."

"What we're concerned about in part is that their plan may set a precedent for the other SCS's that are emerging," said Hooper. 

But MPO officials say it is the suit itself that sets a bad precedent. 

"The worst thing that could happen to the implementation of SB 375 is to have these lawsuits, because the MPOs have made great progress in moving the thinking of our leaders," said Hassan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments. SCAG released its own SCS/RTP at the end of 2011. 

Nonetheless, plaintiffs say that the SCS/RTP explicitly ignores that primary goal of SB 375. 

"One of the major issues in our lawsuit is that the plan does not provide for mitigation for global warming impacts," said Hooper. "They could have required that their member cities adopt TOD policies…and they could have required their member agencies to adopt climate action plans." 

Meant to accommodate a projected growth of over 300,000 households by 2050, the RTP/SCS calls for the investment of over $200 billion in new highway lanes, trolley lines, and infrastructure projects. Many of those highway miles are funded and mandated by TransNet, the 2003 initiative that imposed a half-cent countywide sales tax to fund certain transportation projects. SANDAG officials say that the TransNet program, which was envisioned well before SB 375 had been drafted – and, indeed, before compact growth became popular in California, constrains the RTP. 

Most of the highway projects are slated to be built in the next decade, whereas many of the public transit projects are planned for the 2020s. Opponents say that these priorities are backwards—with 28% more spending on highways than on transit in the first decade of the plan—and that the construction of transit in the near term would stoke centralized, compact growth in the long term. The reverse, they say, simply is not going to happen.

"They say that they're going to support transit," said Jack Shu, board president of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. "That may be true in terms of some of the dollar figures, but …of the 15 trolley projects, half of them will take place after 2030." SANDAG's  RTP extends to 2050, SB 375's targets extend only to 2035.

"It's a big challenge now because we have not done our job the past 30 years," said Shu, speaking of the region's low-density development. "That does not mean that we have to avoid that challenge now."

Hooper said that the plan should have focused on transit in the urban core. 

The suit is also something of a referendum on methods of regional planning, which relies on heavily studied, but often unproven, methods of modeling traffic and emissions. Plaintiffs say SANDAG's models include assumptions that are wildly off-base and, as a consequence, overstate the emissions reductions that will result from implementation of the SCS. 

Hooper said that SANDAG assumes unwillingness on the part of high-income residents to ride public transit. This assumption, she said, leads to artificially low transit ridership projects, which in turn bias SANDAG towards highways. 

Though methods of regional modeling are still evolving, SANDAG contends that its methodologies follow common practice in the SB 375 era. 

"We've worked with all of the other MPOs throughout the state to assure that the methodologies that we're using are consistent among the regions," said Stoll. "We've worked with ARB staff."  

Ikhrata said that MPOs have been developing their models "for the past 40 years" and that they have all been rigorously peer reviewed. 

Ultimately, SANDAG planners say that plaintiffs and other opponents fail to understand how the SCS/RTP relates to the unique attributes of the San Diego region. Though opponents claim that the plan creates urban sprawl, SANDAG planners say that sprawl in the region is inherently contained by natural and political barriers: the ocean to the west, mountains to the east, and Camp Pendleton and the Mexican border to the north and south, respectively. 

"We are a bit unique because we almost have a de facto growth boundary," said Stoll. "There's so much preserved in our county, that when you get to Sacramento, where there's nothing but farms as far as the eye can see, there's a lot more potential for that kind of thing to happen."

Stoll said that opponents unfairly assume that the region's history of low-density development will simply persist even though SANDAG planners are confident that the region's culture is already changing. Most importantly, he said, the RTP/SCS plans for 85% of new housing to be multifamily—thus curtailing the sort of low-density, inefficient development that comes with single-family homes. 

"There's very little suburban development planned for the next 40 years," said Stoll. "I think that's not well understood by the stakeholders who live outside San Diego."

Stoll said that requirements such as TOD policies and climate action plans are not necessarily because most of the region's 18 jurisdictions are already, of their own accord, adopting general plans that promote compact development. The SCS, therefore, simply goes along with a trend that is already well underway. 

Opponents, however, call this attitude a cop-out. 

"They took the land use plans that were adopted by their jurisdictions and they threw up their hands and said, ‘we're not a land use planning agency….so we're going to build our transportation system around what's already in the plans of these jurisdictions,'" said Hooper. "We're saying that they could have done better."

Just how much they could have done is a matter of debate, however. Because land use planning—as opposed to transportation planning—is generally a matter of local control, the authors of SB 375 hesitated to vest too much power in regional planning bodies. 

 "SB 375 clearly says MPOs have no authority over land use whatsoever," said Ikhrata. "With that in mind, you can't have such an ambiguous law and come back and say, 'well, you need to do more.'"

Though many environmental groups may want SCS's in San Diego and elsewhere to strive for more aggressive curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, some remain anxious about suits such as the one brought against SANDAG. 

"The reason you don't have 100 groups filing lawsuits is that they are worried about the chilling effect," said Reznik. "If you bring this suit against SANDAG, what happens to groups in like Bay Area and Sacramento who are trying to do a better job. Does this chill discussions and slow everything down?"

Groups like SCAG, however, remain undaunted by SANDAG's challenges. 

"I don't go to bed worrying about who is going to sue me," said Ikhrata. "I go to bed wondering if I did the right thing for the SCAG region. We all want SB 375 to be implemented and we all want it to succeed." 

Contacts & Resources: 

SANDAG RTP Website: www.sandag.org/2050rtp

Rachel Hooper, Partner, Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, LLP, 415.552.7272

Hassan Ikhrata, Executive Director, SCAG, 213.236.1800 

Bruce Reznik, Executive Director, Planning & Conservation League, 916.822.5631

Charles "Muggs" Stoll, SANDAG, 619.699.1900

Jack Shu, Director, Cleveland National Forest Fondation