Urban sprawl has been blamed for everything from vanishing farmland and dwindling wildlife to Baby Boomer obesity. Central Valley air pollution regulators are blaming it now for much of the region’s persistently dismal air quality, and they have embraced a radical fix never before tried: using the threat of smog-mitigation fees to encourage “smart growth” development patterns and greener building design.

No other regulatory agency in the nation has made such an explicit link between land-use patterns and polluting emissions from automobile traffic, and then tried to use developer fees as a hammer to reshape community growth.

Unsurprisingly, the move by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has drawn loud and angry condemnation from the building industry and affordable-housing advocates, who argue the fees boost the cost of new homes and shut many would-be buyers out of one of the state’s hottest markets. Opponents also believe the program unfairly targets only new construction, when existing residents contribute most of the pollution.

Clovis Mayor Nathan Masgig, spokesman for a group opposing the fee, issued a press release calling it “a whopping new tax on Central Valley taxpayers, businesses and our entire regional economy, all with no guarantees of better air quality.”

Environmentalist and public-health experts have been equally energetic in their praise for the new rule, which took effect March 1. And it was defended as both a legal and a regulatory necessity by district staff, who pointed out that a recently adopted state law gives them no other option for cleaning some of the dirtiest air in the county. Bakersfield, Tulare, Visalia and Fresno now rank with Riverside, San Bernardino and Houston at the top of the national list for ozone pollution.

“With the amount of expected growth in the valley, every emission reduction from this rule is important,” Seyed Sadredin, deputy director of the air district, said in announcing adoption of the regulation. “Although air quality has improved greatly over the years, we still have a serious problem, and innovative programs like this will help us clean the air.”

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District encompasses eight counties, from San Joaquin in the north to Kern in the south, and is governed by county supervisors and city council members from throughout the region. The district has been criticized for years for failing to address the valley’s persistently poor air quality (see CP&DR Environment Watch, April 2002). The district adopted the new rule after the Legislature in 2003 enacted SB 709 by Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), which requires the San Joaquin district to adopt, by regulation, a schedule of fees to be assessed on area-wide or indirect sources of emissions.

The regulation, dubbed the “Indirect Source Review” program, was approved in December. It applies a sliding fee scale to large new developments, which it defines as those that include any of the following:

• 50 residential units;
• 2,000 square feet of commercial space;
• 25,000 square feet of light industrial space;
• 100,000 square feet of heavy industrial space;
• 20,000 square feet of medical office space;
• 39,000 square feet of general office space;
• 9,000 square feet of educational space;
• 10,000 square feet of government space;
• 20,000 square feet of recreational space; or
• 9,000 square feet of space not identified above.

The fee is based on a complicated series of equations intended to quantify the added pollution produced by construction equipment and vehicle traffic associated with each type of project, and the estimated cost of offsetting those emissions through off-site reductions at other emission sources. The pollutants of primary concern are small particulate matter, such as the fine soot in diesel exhaust, and nitrogen oxide, a common vehicle emission and a precursor of ozone. The valley is in violation of state and federal standards for those pollutants, despite significant reductions from stationary and mobile sources.

The main reason for the violations, according to air district staff, is the staggering increase in valley auto traffic. Residents drive 94 million miles a year, and population is booming, but the district cannot directly regulate tailpipe emissions from private cars and trucks.

The consequences of poor air quality are serious for children and other people with sensitive health. Research has confirmed a link between airborne particulates and illnesses such as asthma. Ozone can irritate and inflame the respiratory tract, particularly during heavy physical activity, which results in heavy coughing, throat irritation, and breathing difficulties. Fresno County has the highest childhood asthma rate in the state.

Most of the controversy over the rule has arisen from the requirement that developers pay for pollution produced by vehicle traffic associated with their projects over a 10-year period. That traffic includes employees driving to and from work sites in office buildings, industrial plants and other developments, as well as people driving to and from their homes in large residential projects.

The fees can be steep, and they rise over time. For nitrogen oxide emissions, the impact fee starts at $4,650 a ton this year, rises to $7,100 next year and hits $9,350 in 2008 and beyond. The particulate emission fee starts at $2,907 a ton, and then rises to $5,594 and $9,011.

For a typical residential development of 120 single-family homes on 24 acres, the fee would translate to $780 per home this year, climbing to more than $1,700 in 2008.

Builders can reduce the fee substantially, however, by incorporating green building technologies into their projects — increased energy efficiency, for example — clustering housing units near transit stops and shopping centers, boosting density and making development more pedestrian-friendly. Depending on how many of those strategies the developer employs, the fee could drop to $557 or $454 per home — not much of an added hit for the buyer of a $250,000 dwelling.

The district estimates the fee will raise more than $100 million in the first three years, which the district plans to spend on clean-running buses and street sweepers, and other pollution-reduction measures.

Critics of the rule are skeptical that it will enable the district to clean the valley’s air enough to meet state and federal standards. But the region’s regulators are fast running out of sacred cows to exempt from air-pollution controls. In the bovine sense, that’s literally the case: By summer, the valley air district is expected to impose smog restrictions on cows and pigs, too.

San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, (559) 230-5800.
Indirect Source Review Program: http://www.valleyair.org/ISR/ISR.htm
Clovis Mayor Nathan Masgig, (559) 324-2101.