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General Plans Address Climate Change

A general plan that does not address the issue of climate change appears to be an endangered species.

Numerous cities and counties in the process of updating their general plans are addressing climate change with policies for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and, to a lesser extent, adapting to changing conditions. Some localities have adopted climate action plans that affect the general plan and other long-term planning documents, while others have written specific general plan policies and implementation measures.

There is plenty of motivation for cities and counties now, and there may be more in the near future:

State Attorney General Jerry Brown insists that cities, counties and regional planning agencies consider climate change in long-term land use and transportation plans.

The California Air Resources Board appears headed toward adopting mandates for emission-reducing land use plans and development projects.

The Legislature is considering a bill that would require six of seven mandatory general plan elements to include policies aimed at reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

Most everyone involved says that the desire to reduce California's carbon footprint will force local government, to varying degrees, to approve "smart growth" policies and urban development patterns and to reduce automobile-dominated suburban development.

"There is a lot of enthusiasm among planners to deal with this issue," said Janill Richards, coordinator for global warming initiatives in the attorney general's office. "This is an opportunity for planners to do things they have wanted to do for a long time. This issue of climate change has given us an opportunity to talk about land use issues we've wanted to talk about for the last 20 to 30 years."

The attorney general's office got everyone's attention last year when it sued San Bernardo County for not addressing a newly adopted general plan update's impact on global warming. The county got the attorney general's office to drop the lawsuit when the county agreed to adopt a general plan policy outlining ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions attributable to discretionary land use decisions, and to prepare a greenhouse gas reduction plan (see CP&DR In Brief, September 2007).

Since then, the attorney general's office has made a regular practice of telling cities and counties that they need to provide similar attention to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Although the AG's office has used threatening letters, representatives are willing to talk informally and provide guidance to cities and counties, Richards said.

"We're trying to engage in discussion and collaborate with agencies," Richards said.

Local planners offer mixed reports on the attorney general's involvement, with some clearly feeling threatened. But the City of San Diego's experience, said General Plan Program Manager Nancy Bragado, was positive. Although the AG's office did not enter the process until near the end, it did so in a "cooperative and helpful" fashion, Bragado said. The AG's representatives worked with city planners on strengthening and revising policies already in the draft plan that addressed greenhouse gas reductions, she said.

In the end, San Diego incorporated a climate change matrix into the general plan's conservation element. The matrix essentially lists in one spot all policies related to climate change that are sprinkled throughout various elements of the plan. Although the AG initially insisted that San Diego prepare a separate climate change element, there was no point in writing a separate element, Bragado explained, because all general plan policies have equal weight. Eventually, the AG's office accepted the matrix.

"We felt we were addressing climate change through our smart growth strategies, but it became clear we needed to focus on climate change," Bragado said. So the city refined and tightened up policies regarding urban design, green building, water management, transit, urban runoff and other issues that essentially fall into a "sustainability" rubric. The City Council voted unanimously to adopt the new general plan in March.

Key to the city's approach is the "City of Villages" strategy, which, according to the general plan, "focuses the city's growth into compact, mixed-use centers of various scales that are linked to the regional transit system and [which] preserve open space lands" (see CP&DR Insight, August 2002).

Woodie Tescher, a vice principal for PBS&J who assisted with San Diego's plan, said that he has begun recommending cities and counties use the matrix approach. If a local government has employed sustainability policies, it will be "80% to 85%" of the way toward providing what the AG's office wants to see, he said. For Sacramento's general plan update, planners used the matrix as the first appendix in the general plan, he said.

In San Diego and Sacramento, planners were well into general plan updates before climate change became a central issue. Thus, the matrix approach was one way to avoid greatly changing draft plans after years of public input, environmental analysis and planning. But Tescher said he recommends the matrix approach even to jurisdictions just beginning an update because a separate sustainability or climate change element would likely be redundant.

The bigger issue, though, is the policies themselves. In March, the AG's office released a guidance document that suggests 30 climate change policies, programs or goals for conservation elements, nine for land use elements, 12 for circulation elements, eight for housing elements, five for open space elements, three for safety elements and four for energy elements. Some of the suggestions are fairly simply and noncontroversial, such as targeting grant funds to assist affordable housing developers with energy-efficient designs, promoting a range of housing choices near jobs, services and transit, and protecting existing trees. Other suggestions get to the very heart of community planning, such as: "Enact policies to limit or discourage low-density development that segregates employment, services and residential areas." Another suggested policy: "Give funding preference to investment in public transit over investment in infrastructure for private automobile traffic."

Richards insisted that the document only provides suggestions and that her office remains sensitive to different contexts. In the Central Valley, for example, emissions from confined animals and trucks may be a bigger issue than the urban form, she said.

"Urban infill is definitely part of the solution, but it is not the only answer," she said. "We're all kind of learning as we're doing it right now. What my office is looking for is a good-faith effort."

Tescher, however, sees conflict coming. Suburban communities that have slow-growth policies, whether adopted by initiative or the city council, are likely to reject mandates for substantial increases in housing in already developed areas as a means of combating global climate change, he said. "In a lot of communities where the backlash already exists against any kind of infill development or growth, this is going to set off some serious debate about whether the city is going to address greenhouse gas emissions or not," he said.

Soon, they might not have much choice. Senate Bill 375 (Steinberg), last year's blockbuster bill that stalled at the last minute, remains alive in the Legislature. The bill would use transportation funding as leverage to require local governments to make sustainable land use decisions (see CP&DR Insight, September 2007). More directly, AB 2093 by Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) would require that greenhouse gas reduction policies be included in a city or county's next general plan update, or when cities and counties update their housing elements after 2009. It's unclear whether either bill will pass this year, especially with the Legislature focused on the budget. But many people expect such legislation to pass before too long.

Jones and supporters of AB 2093, chiefly the Health Officers Association of California, contend that what they are looking for in general plans is easy to identify and incorporate. Cities and counties could simply pick and choose from policies that have already been written by other local governments, state agencies or the federal Environmental Protection Agency, they say. The legislation, they say, is not prescriptive.

But Bill Higgins, a lobbyist for the League of California Cities, contended that AB 2093 in fact is prescriptive because it requires inclusion of policies in six general plan elements. Yet the broader question of whether climate change should be addressed in environmental review documents or long-term planning documents themselves has not been settled, he said.

Even if the Legislature does not act, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) intends to. By the end of June, the board is scheduled to adopt a "scoping plan" for implementing AB 32, the state's greenhouse gas reduction law. That scoping plan is going to address planning and development, possibly in a very top-down fashion. The scoping plan's land use and transportation planning sections will apparently be based on three primary documents two brief recommendation papers developed at an April symposium, and one detailed report prepared by the Land Use Subgroup to the Climate Action Team (see sidebar.)

All of this is aimed at achieving the goal in AB 32, namely reducing California's greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and reducing emissions to only 20% of 1990 levels by 2050.

In the meantime, cities and counties are headed toward the goal in a variety of ways. The City of Alameda, for example, adopted a local action plan on climate change earlier this year. Two of the plan's top four priorities involve land use adopting green building standards for private development, and implementing alternative transportation strategies.

While some cities are amending local action plans into their general plans, Alameda intends to keep the action plan as a stand-alone document, said Cynthia Eliason, supervising planner for the city. "There isn't a lot that needs to be added to our general plan. One of the things that's already in our general plan is a de-emphasis on the automobile, and an emphasis on mixed-use on the northern waterfront," she said.

But the City of Albany, which is just beginning work on a climate action plan, does intend to incorporate the document into the general plan, said Nicole Almaguer, an environmental health specialist for the city. Although the process is still very young, she said the plan would likely encourage open space preservation, mixed-use development, redevelopment and green building.

Increasingly, long-range planning documents are encouraging or even mandating green building principles, such as proper building orientation, environmentally friendly stormwater management techniques and deceased water consumption, noted David Javid, a senior planner with RRM Design Group. "Most of the specific plans we have written in the last year have contained a sustainability chapter," he said.

Although some cities find public resistance to infill, higher densities and putting transit ahead of new roads, planners report there is overwhelming interest in the broader issue.

"There's great public interest in climate change," said San Diego's Bragado. "We heard from environmental groups, we heard from some our community planning activists, and just from people who felt compelled by this issue."

Contacts:
Janill Richards, state attorney general's office, (510) 622-2100.
Nancy Bragado, City of San Diego, (619) 533-4549.
Woodie Tescher, PBS&J, (310) 268-8132.
Cynthia Eliason, City of Alameda, (510) 747-6880.
David Javid, RRM Design Group, (415) 331-8282.
Attorney general's global warming website: http://caag.state.ca.us/globalwarming
City of San Diego general plan: www.sandiego.gov/planning/genplan/index.shtml
Land Use Subgroup of the Climate Action Team: www.climatechange.ca.gov/luscat/index.html

 

 

Action Plan, Declaration Guide State Air Board


At the California Air Resources Board's Haagen-Smit Symposium an annual, invitation-only affair in April at the Seascape Resort in Aptos participants prepared two documents intended to provide land use and transportation policy recommendations for the board's AB 32 scoping plan.

The scoping plan is scheduled to be complete in June and will address land use and transportation, as well as numerous other areas related to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). One document from the symposium is called the Seascape Action Plan and the second is the Haagen-Smit Declaration. The two documents are available on the CARB website at www.arb.ca.gov/planning/hsmit2008/hsmit2008.htm.

The action plan says that the state will provide public outreach "to discuss the link between land use and transportation planning decisions, and GHG reductions" and will "support" local and regional planning efforts. The plan further promises to implement AB 857, the long-ignored law that requires the state to plan and invest in a way that focuses growth into developed areas, limits outward development and preserves natural resources.

The action plan goes much further, though. In a section titled "Define Regional Land Use and Transportation GHG Targets," the plan says the state, and regional and local governments will define greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets, which will be implemented through comprehensive regional plans and transportation plans.

"Local governments will adopt either a climate action plan or similar policies in their general plans that are consistent with the regional blueprint," the action plan states.

The plan calls for revising the California Environmental Quality Act "to support greenhouse gas efficient growth" and asks the Governor's Office of Planning and Research to convene a strategic growth council "to examine ways to improve land use coordination and goal attainment."

Here is the Haagen-Smit Declaration in its entirety:

These are priority actions needed to meet AB 32 goals by reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation and land use and are recommendations from the Haagen-Smit Symposium for ARB consideration as it develops the AB 32 Scoping Plan

Set Targets. Establish quantitative targets on a regional or local level. Targets will be emissions based considering population (i.e., per capita).

Use the Blueprint Framework with Local Accountability. Implement the blueprint model in the major urban areas. Encourage development of local climate action plans and local targets. Link these local plans and targets back to regional blueprints.

Promote High-quality, Low-impact Communities. Establish a variety of mechanisms that support building large-scale, low-carbon footprint, livable, innovative projects and communities. These mechanisms could include regulatory actions, targeted incentives, and targeted funding to demonstrate the market for these types of projects and communities.

Secure Funding. Secure new and continuous funding. Make better use of existing funds. Funding is needed to support the enabling infrastructure to make the blueprints happen and incentivize the desired high-quality, low-impact projects.

Use CEQA to Mitigate Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Establish statewide significance thresholds and improve the CEQA process to support low-impact development.

Adopt Proven Measures. All levels of government pursue proven emission reduction strategies, such as indirect source rules and other measures. Strategies with co-benefits should be a high priority.

Rethink Zoning. Remove the barriers to mixed-use projects in California's existing zoning and eliminate the incentives for sprawl.

Improve Measurement through Partnerships. Develop local government quantification protocols, improve VMT [vehicle miles traveled] estimation tools, and develop more refined land use and transportation models that reflect the benefits of high-quality development. Use these tools for planning and to measure progress.

Exert State Leadership. The state builds, operates, and coordinates across all levels of government in a way that promotes low-impact development and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

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