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Cash-Strapped Planning Agencies Get Prop. 84 Windfall

When Proposition 84 passed in 2006, it reflected a booming economy. Providing $5.4 billion for clean water, parks, and open space the measure was seen as an important way to protect the state's natural resources at a time before many were worried about $28 billion deficits or maxing out the state's bonding capacity. 

Prop. 84's primary focus is on waterways and water management. However, it also includes a relatively tiny set-aside for innovative planning that is proving to be a godsend to planning departments that are suffering unprecedented budget cuts (see CP&DR Insight Vol. 25, No. 5, March 2010). 

Last month, the Strategic Growth Council approved the first round of Sustainable Communities Planning Grants. The council allocated roughly $23 million to 40 projects across the state. In many cases, this infusion of cash from Sacramento has given life to long-range planning activities and special projects that, despite the impetus of new statewide smart-growth incentives, otherwise would have been shelved indefinitely. 

The economic crisis comes at an unfortunate time for cities and regional agencies, such as councils of government, that are gearing up to comply with SB 375, the 2008 law that promotes mitigation of greenhouse gases through smart-growth principles. 

"(Applicants are) trying to do something that will help them not only meet their SB 375 targets but also really look at improving the quality of life in their communities," said Heather Fargo, executive policy officer at SGC.  

Many of the municipal recipients are updating general plans or specific plans that seek to foster density and create greater harmony between density and transportation. Many of the MPO recipients will be creating region-wide blueprints and Sustainable Communities Strategies, per SB 375. 

Stakeholders will continue to debate whether SB 375's regional targets are strong enough, too strong, or just right. However, localities are almost unanimous in expressing the complaint that SB 375 comes with almost no fiscal support from Sacramento. Many have lamented that SB 375 is an "unfunded mandate" that puts pressure on localities while offering scant assistance from the state. 

"This is probably the first time that this kind of money, in this amount…has been available for planning efforts in a very long time," said Kim Murry, director of Long Range Planning for the City of San Luis Obispo. "It provides an alternative to funding this update that  the city probably couldn't have taken on by itself given current budget constraints." 

The city received $880,000 to update its land use and circulation element.

Prop. 84 funds are thus filling a crucial funding gap for many of the localities and agencies that received funding (three metropolitan planning organizations were given conditional awards). That leaves roughly 80% of approximately 188 applicants—totaling $94 million in requests—wanting for funds. SGC has not yet released a list of all applicants. 

For many of the successful applicants, Prop. 84 funding has been approved for bread-and-butter projects that cities would normally fund in the normal course of business. These projects include area plans and general plan updates. In many cases, these updates have languished for lack of funding. 

"General plans are often modified, sometimes updated, but there's no mandate stating when and how often they need to be, so it's very sporadic and all over the place," said Jena Price, Global Warming Coordinator at the Planning and Conservation League.  "Disadvantaged communities…would otherwise be left in the dust." 

Tales of desperation abound among some of the recipients who struggle just to keep their doors open. Cities in the Central Valley such as Corcoran and Merced have suffered double-blows of the recession and the region's perennially poor air quality. Corcoran received a relatively large grant of $450,000 for its general plan update. (Disclosure: CP&DR Publisher Bill Fulton consults for the City of Corcoran.) 

In funding general plan updates, the SGC hopes that cities will come up with plans that are not just revisions of current plans but, in fact,  revolutionary documents that serve as models for other cities. 

"For a lot of people, even if they are just doing  bread-and-butter general plan updates, (they are responding to) the new world and the need to look at climate change, energy conservation, TOD," said Fargo. "Those aren't necessarily things that they've had in their general plan before."

Some plans have been around since before climate change was even recognized as an environmental issue, much less a planning issue. 

In Imperial County, tiny Calipatria—population 7,200, including 4,000 prison inmates—received $175,000 for an update of a general plan that has, because of the city's impoverishment, remained unchanged since 1992. Justina Gamboa-Arce, a contract city planner with the City of Calipatria, said that Calipatria's isolation and the county's own financial constraints meant that the city had no other option than to seek Prop. 84 funding. 

"We pretty much knew if it didn't get funded through this program, there really isn't anything else out there," said Gamboa-Arce. "So if you don't get this, you're going to stay, in essence, another 20 years without a general plan update."  

Twenty percent of the Sustainable Communities Planning Grants are earmarked for the benefit of economically disadvantaged communities, including Calipatria and Corcoran. 

If the SGC had taken into account economically disadvantaged planning departments, then almost every project would have qualified for the earmark. Community Development Director Susan Atkins, of the City of Corcoran, described her city's level of disadvantage as "unbelievable." 

Some recipients, however, are in less dire straits and are pursuing  projects that might be considered experiments or luxuries. The City of Morgan Hill received $380,000 to create a plan to install solar power generators along a freeway right-of-way. 

Upscale Santa Monica, whose planning department is on stable financial footing, has received an embarrassment of riches, not only from SGC, but also from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city received $550,000 in Prop. 84 funds for a neighborhood plan at the Memorial Park Station, which will be a stop on the Expo Line Phase 11. It also received an unrelated $625,000 Sustainable Communities Challenge Grant—a joint project of the federal departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation—to plan a transit village at Bergamot Station, the next station on the Expo Line. 

Santa Monica officials speculate that their applications succeeded because both projects tie into a recent general plan update that promotes sustainability and smart growth principles holistically throughout the city. 

"I think that it was easier for both the federal and the state agencies to see that we're already thinking this way, about how to integrate transportation and land use…we have stated goals," said Santa Monica Senior Planner, Liz Bar-El. 

SGC officials say that some cities' goals were not so clear. Of the 188 applications, they said that they were able to reject many simply because—regardless of financial need—the applications were sloppy or because proposed projects simply did not meet the standards set out by the grant guidelines. Twenty-five such applications were deemed ineligible for consideration. 

Though some cities may have been disappointed, the recipients cover a diverse geographic and socioeconomic range. 

"There's a huge need out there and it does appear that they did disburse the funds as evenly as possible," said Atkins of the SGC's approach to the Central Valley. 

Fargo said that, desperate as some other cities may be, there is hope for them later this year. She said that SGC will be accepting another round of applications this summer and that projects that got shut out in 2010 have a good chance of succeeding in 2011. 

 "The good news is that we do have two more funding cycles," said Fargo. "We're hoping people will look at what has been funded….and look at what they might do and how they might improve their application." 

SGC may alter the selection process somewhat for the next round. In particular, Fargo said that so many applications included economically disadvantaged communities that a separate set-aside may not be necessary. Economic disadvantage will remain a selection criterion. For those jurisdictions that were passed up this year, Fargo said that some need almost no changes to be frontrunners this year. And she said that SGC staff will be available to help localities on their applications. 

For both recipients and future applicants alike, officials caution that departments cannot become dependent on state funding, especially given the drastic budget cuts that Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed. Recipients say, however, that they are aware of the grants' constraints and are treating them as one-time windfalls that are unlikely to recur. Most, in fact, are hiring temporary outside consultants rather than rehiring or taking on new full-time staff members. 

Overall, however, Fargo said that she sees Prop. 84 grants as job-generators for planners. And she said that a lousy economy for builders might prove to be an ideal time for innovative planning. 

"The timing is great: because we are in this recession, we're not seeing a lot of building," said Fargo. "But when the market comes back, you're ready to go and you're able to have a lot of up-front work done."  

Contacts & Resources

Sustainable Communities Planning Grants Funding Report [pdf]

Susan Atkins, Community Development Director, City of Corcoran, 559.992.2151

Liz Bar-El, Senior Planner, City of Santa Monica, 310.458.8341

Heather Fargo, Executive Policy Officer, Strategic Growth Council, 916.653.9205 

Justina Gamboa-Arce, Planner, City of Calipatria, 760.348.4141

Kim Murry, City of San Luis Obispo, 805.781.7100

Jena Price, Global Warming Coordinator, Planning & Conservation League, 916.313.4508

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