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SB 375 Continues To Dominate Planning Discussion

Jan 26, 2009
Senate Bill 375 dominated this year's UCLA Land Use Law and Planning Conference. While there were few comments about the merits of the new law, there was extensive discussion regarding the law's impact and implementation.

If there was a common theme, it was this: SB 375 has the potential to change dramatically both California's land use planning system and growth patterns, and the law is very much a work in progress.

Although it was largely unsaid, the implication is that the era of the large-scale, low-density, single-family housing tracts has passed.

The author of SB 375, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, was scheduled provide the lunchtime keynote address, but he got stuck in Sacramento dealing with the state budget. Instead, Steinberg sent along a 15-minute video in which he told the approximately 300 conference attendees that SB 375 will change growth patterns and serve as a national model.

Steinberg reflected back to 2001, when, as an assemblyman, he attempted to decrease the fiscalization of land use by creating a tax-sharing system across metropolitan regions. Like many academics had already concluded, Steinberg argued that the system provided fiscal incentives for bad planning. His bill failed amid intense opposition from the League of California Cities and suburbs with large sales tax bases, but Steinberg never gave up on the issue. When Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2006 signed AB 32, the state's greenhouse gas emissions reductions law, Steinberg saw a new way to get at the issue. SB 375, he said, attempts to incorporate land use and transportation into AB 32 implementation.

Signed by Schwarzenegger last September, the new law provides something for every member of the "Coalition of the Impossible" that coalesced around the bill.

Builders receive incentives in the form of relaxed environmental review of projects favored by environmentalists and planning advocates, namely, compact, mixed-use development.

Cities get a longer period (every eight years instead of every five) in which to update their housing elements.

Housing advocates have greater ability to challenge housing element, especially if cities and counties do no complete rezoning to accommodate affordable units.

As the replacement lunchtime speaker, League lobbyist and Coalition of the Impossible member Bill Higgins said that SB 375 is both less and more than it appears. He contended that the "strategic growth strategies" that metropolitan planning agencies must adopt under SB 375 are not significantly different than the growth forecasts that regional transportation planning agencies already prepare and which are reviewed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency for compliance with the Clean Air Act.

Higgins speculated that most MPOs will not be able to hit their state-mandated greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals with a sustainable communities strategy and, therefore, will have to prepare the required alternative planning strategy that does provide a path to greenhouse gas emissions compliance. The alternative strategy does not have to be incorporated into the regional transportation plan, but Higgins predicted that local elected officials will want to implement the alternative plan. Plus, the climate change hawks in the state attorney general's office and CEQA enforcers will insist on the alternative plan's implementation, he said.

Which gets to the Higgins point about SB 375 being more than advertised. The CEQA incentives for high-density, mixed-use projects near transit will change the type of projects that developers propose, he said. Thus, we'll see a bottom-up change to growth patterns.

Higgins said the law needs cleanup legislation to address housing elements that come due during the transition to SB 375, which will not kick in until late 2011. Later in the day, Housing and Community Development Director Lynn Jacobs agreed such legislation is necessary. Higgins also predicted that transportation agencies and commercial developers would seek CEQA incentives similar to those SB 375 provides to residential developers.

Peter Detwiler, staff director for the state Senate Local Government Committee, said he too expects to see follow-up legislation because SB 375 des not provide implementation details.

Taking a step back, Martin Wachs, a former transportation and urban planning academic at UC Berkeley and UCLA who now is with the RAND Corporation, said that SB 375 and other recent legislation is an attempt to undo the automobile's dominance of land use planning. Jeff Stevens, director of consulting company Danielian Associates, said that SB 375 and the urge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions comes down to transportation choice and proximity. Many cities, he noted, lack the infrastructure for such basic transportation choice as walking and bicycling.

Paul Shigley