Can California and its communities fit together regional plans, local plans, state housing requirements, and new state requirements on greenhouse gas emissions reductions?

Probably not, according to panelists speaking this morning at the California Chapter, American Planning Association conference in Hollywood.

SB 375 – the regional planning bill designed to implement the state's greenhouse-gas emissions reduction requirements in the land use arena – does create closer ties between transportation planning and planning for affordable housing. But there's still a disconnect between regional plans and local plans – deliberately.

The bill, which has passed the legislature and is currently sitting on the governor's desk, would require Metropolitan Planning Organizations to create "sustainable communities plans" that conform with greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets generated by the California Air Resources Board. The bill would then provide transportation funding incentives and truncated review -- or exemptions -- under the California Environmental Quality Act for projects that conform to the sustainable communities plan.

There may also be better connections to the state's Regional Housing Needs Assessment process, which will now operate on an eight-year rotation rather than a five-year rotation, partly to match it up to the federally driven Regional Transportation Plan schedule.

But local government lobbyists succeeded in including language protecting local land use authority. SB 375 specifically states that the regional planning process created under the bill does not usurp local land use authority. Translation: The regional "sustainable communities plan" and a city's housing element don't need to line up.

"The regional plan could contemplate putting units in one location and the local plan could put those units in another location in the same jurisdiction," said Bill Higgins, land use lobbyist for the League of California Cities.

Of course, under the terms of SB 375, if an affordable housing project conforms to the regional plan, it may qualify for a CEQA exemption – even if it conflicts with the local plan. And a project that conforms with the local plan may not qualify for a CEQA break if it does not conform to the regional sustainable communities plan.
Presumably, these provisions are supposed to encourage local governments to conform to the regional plan, even though consistency is not required.

"We fought really hard to make SB 375 not just another top-down planning process from Sacramento," said Pete Parkinson, CCAPA's vice president for legislative affairs. However, Parkinson warned that local governments cannot simply ignore SB 375. The planning processes created by the bill  "place a huge responsibility on local governments to pay attention to this process," he said.

-- Bill Fulton