California's Office of Planning & Research appears likely to make a major impact this year by revising the General Plan Guidelines and pushing the envelope on the California Environmental Quality Act in a way that hasn't been seem for a decade or more.
OPR is currently preparing an update of both the General Plan Guidelines and the CEQA Guidelines. Such updates are not usually front-page news, but this time around both cases could be the leading edge of significant change in the practice of planning in California.
The General Plan Guidelines now in the works will focus on integrating the process of updating plans with environmental review, which is often tacked on to the end. "All of the feedback I've been getting is that CEQA eats the life out of your general plan – the tail wags the dog," said OPR's CEQA expert Chris Calfee at last week's state planning conference in Visalia.
Meanwhile, OPR also must undertake implementation of the many revisions to the California Environmental Quality Act that Gov. Jerry Brown has pushed through the Legislature since he took office – most importantly, rethinking the "Level Of Service" standard for traffic.
"We are looking very seriously at vehicle miles traveled as a more appropriate measure of a particular development on traffic and traffic services and what are the impact on complete streets and transportation alternatives," OPR Director Ken Alex said in a keynote speech in Visalia.
The timelines for each of these updates are tight. Under the terms of SB 743 – recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown – OPR must come back with a report and a proposed game plan by July. Meanwhile, OPR hopes to complete the General Plan Guidelines update by December.
As one tweeter from Visalia suggested, OPR is not preparing "your father's General Plan Guidelines update". Key to the state's approach is the availability of thousands of layers of geographical data on the state's "geoportal".
But it may be the connection to CEQA that is most important part of the General Plan Guidelines update.
Regarding the way CEQA "eats" General Plans, Calfee said in Visalia: "We can address some of that if we look at how we do timing of General Plans and EIRs. We want to revamp section on CEQA and General Plans to better address what are the key intersections between development of General Plan and development of CEQA review. We may put out a time line in order to get people to think about environmental issues at the very front end of the process."
He added: "Also, we want to set forth other key linkages between General Plans and environmental review. Project objectives in the General Plan -- those should be linking up to project objectives in EIR. Alternatives prepared for General Plan should be the alternatives in your EIR. And so forth."