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Local Planning Funds Will Flow Through Water Bond

The old saying in government is that in order to understand what's going on, you've got to follow the money. In local planning throughout California, that's becoming increasingly easy to do. Local government revenues � property tax, sales tax, development fees, redevelopment funds � are in steep decline. Cities and counties are laying off planners, canceling or truncating planning contracts, and punting as much work as they can into the future.

Increasingly, the money to plan the future of California's communities is flowing from the state and federal governments. At the federal level, the troika of agencies charged by the Obama Administration with promoting "sustainable communities" � HUD, Transportation, and EPA � are seeking additional funds from Congress and ramping up new programs. Meanwhile, the state's general fund is all but bankrupt. In the near future, then, virtually all of California's planning efforts will depends on bond money. As of February, the state had authorized $151 billion in general obligation bonds, $48 billion of which has yet to be issued. Much of that money will affect planning, directly or indirectly. In the immediate future, there's Proposition 84, the 2006 water quality bond issue which still has some $60 million earmarked for local planning for elements such as parks and natural resource protection. About a third of the money will be given away this year. (Some money has already been meted out to regional planning agencies � known as metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) in federal transportation lingo � to fund improved computer modeling of growth scenarios.) And in the longer term, there's the both state and federal money for the California High Speed Rail system � more than $10 billion so far � much of which is sure to be peeled off to plan the areas near the high-speed rail stations. On one level, the Prop. 84 and High Speed Rail funds may save planning in California by providing "bridge" funding to keep planning projects going until the economy recovers. But on another level, these funds may well shift planning priorities in California away from local governments to the regional agencies and Sacramento � which will inevitably mean less focus on conventional planning and more focus on planning transit station areas and planning for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The Prop 84 funds are in the hands of a newly formed state entity called the Strategic Growth Council (SGC) � a collection of four Cabinet secretaries, plus the director of the Governor's Office of Planning & Research, and one public member appointed by the governor, former Gap executive Bob Fisher. (SGC is staffed, for now, by OPR, though that agency may be eliminated as part of the next round of budget cuts.) Proposition 84 originally contained planning money intended mainly to promote the conservation of resources, such as air and water quality, agricultural land, and energy efficiency. Recently, however, the law that created SGC (Insight, Vol. 23, No. 3, Mar. 2008) has specifically broadened Prop 84's mandate to include greenhouse gas emissions reductions pursuant to AB 32. The Strategic Growth Council spent most of the fall and winter figuring out how to dole out the $65 million in funds � debating, for example, whether to tie the funds closely to SB 375 implementation or, alternatively, whether to give local governments wide latitude to pursue whatever plans they wish. The final guidelines for the planning grants are scheduled to be adopted in mid-March, with proposals due to SGC by the end of May. The allowable grants range in size from $100,000 to $1 million. (SGC recently adopted final guidelines for a separate pot of money for "urban greening" grants, and those proposals are due at the end of April.) In its final draft guidelines, the Strategic Growth Council came down kind of in the middle of the state-vs.-local debate � still leaning toward supporting local planning, but earmarking some funds for regional purposes as well. One thing is for sure, however: there's a definite AB 32/SB 375 slant to the Strategic Growth Council's guidelines. The proposed final guidelines [pdf] include three focus areas:

  • Local "sustainable" planning, including things like general plans, climate action plans, and zoning codes. In this round, these efforts will get about $14 million statewide.
  • Regional planning that supports the efforts of regional planning agencies in implementing SB 375, such as blueprint or sustainable communities plans. SGC has earmarked $4 million in this round for these efforts.
  • Regional planning involving multiple players � not just the regional planning agencies but also other agencies as well. This could include innovative efforts such as regional carbon offset programs, blueprint programs for rural areas, or climate action plans that include whole counties and/or multiple agencies. Some $2 million has been earmarked in this round for these purposes.

These specific categories mark a change from the draft guidelines that were issued last fall, which were much broader in scope and did not call out different focus areas. When the draft guidelines were first issued, the feedback generally fell into two categories.

The first was a suggestion that most of the money � even money to do local plans � should flow through the regional planning agencies, which are responsible for implementing SB 375. This suggestion came, not surprisingly, from the regional planning agencies themselves, who are increasingly driving planning in the state by a series of "smart growth" grant programs.

The second was a suggestion from smart growth advocates that the program focus on down-and-dirty implementation tools such as form-based codes, rather than on broad planning documents.

In the end, SGC mostly stuck to its original game plan of earmarking the money for local governments to do local plans, rather than turning the money over to the regional planning agencies. But it did so with a strong focus on climate change � and at least an implicit guideline that the local plans should support SB 375 and planning for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

And can $14 million make a difference? In the big picture, it's not that much money. It will pay for maybe 10-15 general plans or, possibly, 30 or so specific plans or zoning overhauls. It really all depends on whether the Strategic Growth Council is truly strategic about distributing the funds. In ordinary times, this kind of grant money would probably flow only to those cities and counties highly motivated to do something different � a new kind of plan, or one focused on climate issues. In desperate times, the money is much more likely to flow to localities that wouldn't otherwise be thinking about these issues but that are willing to give them a look for the sake of qualifying for a grant. These localities that could serve as unusual test cases for innovative planning.

--William Fulton