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The Top 10 Stories Of 2008

Dec 30, 2008

In the world of land use planning and real estate development, 2008 will go down as a memorable year, but not necessarily for positive reasons. If the housing market bubble burst in 2007, it crashed to the ground Hindenburg-style in 2008. The fallout from the housing market disaster continues to affect nearly every aspect of planning and development in California.

In fact, if you are in the pro-development camp, there was not a lot to cheer during 2008. State lawmakers approved SB 375, which has the potential to completely change the rules of the development game. Voters extended growth control initiatives in the Bay Area. The state decided to take a bunch of redevelopment money. Heck, local government even re-exerted control over cell phone antennas.

Does that mean 2008 was a big year for the slow-growth side? In some aspects, yes. Passage of SB 375 was clearly a strike against sprawl, however the term gets defined. Plus, voters demonstrated their commitment to transit, and to preserving farmland and open space, and the Schwarzenegger administration continued to lead the nation in fighting climate change.

Rather than pick the winners and losers, though, we have selected what we think are the 10 most important land use stories from 2008. While the national economic recession plays a role in some of these stories, our list provides proof that life � as well as planning, litigation and lawmaking � goes on.

With that, here are California Planning & Development Report's 10 Most Important Land Use Stories of 2008:


1. Passage of SB 375

Whether or not this was truly the most important land use measure since passage of the Coastal Act in 1976 (as some suggested), state Sen. Darrell Steinberg's bill has the potential to alter the planning system in dramatic fashion. Essentially, the bill uses the urge to limit driving as a way to mandate regional planning. Quite clearly, the goal is to encourage infill development, mixed uses and transit, and to discourage greenfield housing subdivisions. As important as the bill might have been, the unprecedented coalition that backed it might have been even more impressive. Environmentalists, major building organizations, labor, planners and local government all endorsed SB 375. The only real opponents were Republican lawmakers who hate everything the Democrats propose and the pavement crowd.


2. The Housing Bust

We thought things were bad when we named this the top story of 2007. Little did we know. In 2008, housing starts reached their lowest level since anyone started keeping track. The median housing price in many markets is now 30% to 50% less than it was only three years ago. In some Central Valley cities and Inland Empire exurbs, more than 10% of the housing stock has been foreclosed. Cities and counties all over the state cut their planning staffs by one-quarter to one-half. Building inspection and plan check staffs shrunk even more. And the killer: No one expects the housing market to rebound in 2009.

 

3. Sales taxes approved

Despite the sour economy, voters approved sales taxes for transportation in Los Angeles, Santa Clara, Santa Barbara, Imperial, Marin and Sonoma counties in November. The result should be major expansions of Los Angeles rail service,  completion of BART to San Jose, and a new commuter rail service through Sonoma and Marin counties. Voters also backed the $9.95 billion bond to start building a high-speed train system.

 

4. Voters Reject Proposition 98

After voters defeated a confusing and oddly worded property rights initiative in 2006, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the California Farm Bureau Federation returned with an initiative that sought to prohibit the use of eminent domain for economic development purposes. But the measure also would have outlawed local rent control laws, a provision that earned the scorn of retired people and anti-poverty advocates. The result was a 61-39 defeat, and probably the end of the anti-eminent domain backlash spurred by the Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo decision. Instead, voters approved Proposition 99, a modest initiative backed by the California Redevelopment Association that prohibits the taking of owner-occupied homes for economic development projects.

 

5. State Supreme Court's CEQA Infatuation

Never in the 38-year history of the California Environmental Quality Act has the state Supreme Court shown so much interest in the law. This year, the court issued three rulings, upholding the EIR for Cal-Fed Bay Delta project, approving the review of three timber harvest plans in the Sierra Nevada, and rejecting West Hollywood's delayed review of a contract to build affordable housing. Three other cases remain pending. While the court has clarified some aspects of CEQA, it has not steered the law in an obvious direction. 

 

6. Growth Control Extensions

Voters in November extended existing growth control mechanisms in Solano and Napa counties. Unless voters change their minds, the extensions jointly lock up nearly 1 million acres of agricultural land, watershed and open space between the Bay Area and Sacramento until at least 2040.

 

7. Adoption of AB 32 Scoping Plan

A month ago, it looked like this might be the biggest story of the young century. The California Air Resources Board appeared ready to adopt a very aggressive target for greenhouse gas emissions reductions due to land use changes. At the last minute, the board backed away and, instead, deferred to the SB 375 process. Homebuilders breathed a sigh of relief. Environmentalists cursed a lost opportunity.

 

8. Redevelopment Gets Stiffed

To "balance" the state budget, lawmakers and the Schwarzenegger administration agreed to shift $350 million of tax increment revenue from redevelopment agencies to school districts in order to decrease the state's obligation to education. Arguing that the shift is unconstitutional, the California Redevelopment Association responded with a lawsuit. Meanwhile new Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor released a report urging lawmakers to increase the shift to $400 million and make it an annual fixture of the budget.

 

9. Wireless Zoning

Not often does an appellate court do a 180-degree turnaround in only seven years. But the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals completed a course reversal when it decided that local government does in fact have the ability to regulate the siting and appearance of wireless telecommunications facilities. After years of blowing past local regulations, cell phone companies no longer have the upper hand.

 

10. Stanislaus County Slow-Growth

In February, voters by a 2-to-1 ratio backed the Stamp Out Sprawl initiative, which requires voters to decide on the rezoning of land from an agricultural designation to residential. The measure was the first of its kind to pass in the Central Valley.

 

CP&DR Staff

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