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Despite Hoopla, SB375 Is Not A Done Deal

Aug 8, 2008
Earlier this week, the author of a bill that seeks to place regional planning, transportation funding, affordable housing and greenhouse gas reductions into a "smart growth" package conducted a press conference to announce that builders, local governments and environmentalists had reached agreement on the legislation.

But the following day, the parties were back at the negotiating table and the legislation was not heard as scheduled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Senate Bill 375 did make it out of the Committee today (Friday), but it remains a work in progress.

Affordable housing advocates to whom bill author Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has close ties are not on board. Plus, I have a difficult time believing that environmentalists and builders are going to be able to agree on precise language of California Environmental Quality Act streamlining for compliant projects, a provision that is the price for builder support of SB 375. Further, the bill would change the way the state allocates fair-share housing requirements among the regions, which is the sort of systemic change that is tough to pass in the Capitol.

Senate Bill 375 is getting portrayed as the most significant land use legislation since state lawmakers passed the Coastal Act in 1976. The system under SB 375 would work like this: The California Air Resources Board, after consulting with local governments, would set regional greenhouse gas reduction targets. A regional transportation planning agency would then incorporate the target into the regional transportation plan. The transportation plan would contain a land use component (like the newly popular regional blueprints) that would be called a "sustainable communities strategy."

The Department of Housing and Community Development would have to consider each region's sustainable communities strategy when allocating regional fair share housing needs (known as the RHNA numbers). The regional planning agency would also apparently have to consider the strategy when allocating RHNA numbers to cities and counties within the region. The RHNA process and corresponding housing element updates would occur every eight years, rather than every five (although the current five-year mandate is often ignored).

Development projects that implement the strategy would receive less environmental scrutiny than they would under CEQA as currently written. But projects that do not comply with the sustainable communities strategy would be on their own for infrastructure funding because the projects would not be covered by the regional transportation plan. The California Chapter, American Planning Association, has a more complete explansion of the bill on its website.

Essentially, Steinberg is trying to force the development of compact, transit-oriented communities, and he's using transportation funding as both the carrot and stick. At a press conference on Wednesday, Steinberg rolled out support from the California Building Industry Association, The League of California Cities and the California League of Conservation Voters. The builders and the league had been SB 375 opponents. Both the Sacramento Bee and the San Diego Union-Tribune responded with stories suggesting SB 375 passage is near. Those news stories were only hours old when all the parties reconvened behind closed doors for further negotiations.

Maybe the bill will pass before the Legislature wraps up its two-year session at month's end. And maybe the governor will sign it. But I wouldn't assume anything at this point.

- Paul Shigley
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