If an oil company wants to build a service station in California, it typically needs a permit from the local air pollution control agency, which has the authority to consider whether vapors released during fueling might harm neighbors. If the station is a big one and has been proposed for a vacant lot next to a day-care center, the oil company might never get that permit.

But if a developer proposes building a day-care center next to a service station, no air-quality permit is required. Local land use authorities, such as the city council or planning commission, would provide the only review, and they may or may not consider the health implications of toxic air emissions when deciding whether the site is appropriate for children. The same goes for many other projects - medical clinics, housing tracts, schools, retirement homes, playgrounds - with the potential to place vulnerable populations near existing uses that may jeopardize their health.

In an effort to integrate public health into the review process, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) has adopted a set of guidelines local agencies can use to prevent land use conflicts of this sort. The board approved the document, titled “Air Quality and Land Use Handbook: A Community Health Perspective,” on April 28.

Although it promises to address an issue of growing concern to health advocates, the handbook also promotes a policy shift that could complicate efforts by California communities to redevelop their aging urban fabric using “smart growth” principles. If widely employed, the policies and procedures outlined in the handbook also would involve local air quality officials more deeply in the project review process. While welcomed by environmental justice advocates, who argue that communities have long dumped undesirable projects on poor and minority neighborhoods, the prospect of an additional hurdle is likely to dismay developers, who are already critical of the slow pace, complexity and cost of regulatory compliance in California.

The risk of developing acute illness from direct exposure to substances known to be toxic or carcinogenic is well established. It is only recently, however, that researchers have begun identifying proximity to traffic-clogged freeways, or to ports and distribution centers frequented by diesel trucks, as risk factors for a variety of health problems, including asthma and heart attacks. Many of these stem from exposure to the fine soot particles in diesel exhaust.

“Recent air pollution studies have shown an association between respiratory and other non-cancer health effects and proximity to high traffic roadways. Other studies have shown that diesel exhaust and other cancer-causing chemicals emitted from cars and trucks are responsible for much of the overall cancer risk from airborne toxics in California,” the ARB handbook warns.

As a remedy, the ARB handbook recommends that local general plans, zoning laws and conditional use permit requirements be revised to prevent new “sensitive land uses” - characterized as any residence, schools and other facilities for children, and any medical facility - from being approved in the following areas:

o Within 500 feet of a freeway, urban roads with 100,000 vehicles a day, or rural roads with 50,000 vehicles a day.
o Within 1,000 feet of a distribution center that accommodates more than 100 trucks per day.
o Within 1,000 feet of a major service and maintenance rail yard.
o Immediately downwind of ports and petroleum refineries.
o Within 1,000 feet of a chrome plater.
o Within 300 feet of any dry cleaning operation that uses perchloroethylene.
o Within 300 feet of a large gas station, defined as one that dispenses 3.6 million gallons or more per year, or within 50 feet of a typical gas station.

“Our intent is to highlight potential health impacts associated with living, playing and going to school near high air pollution sources so land use decision makers can consider these issues throughout the land use planning process,” ARB Acting Chair Barbara Riordan said in announcing the handbook's adoption.

The ARB handbook is one of several efforts under way in California to bring air-quality considerations into the planning process. Legislation pending in Sacramento, SB 44 by Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego), would require local governments to add air quality elements to their general plans. And on May 6, the South Coast Air Quality Management District board approved a “Guidance Document for Addressing Air Quality Issues in General Plans and Local Planning,” which suggests ways local governments in the Los Angeles region can implement regulations similar to those outlined in the ARB handbook.

There is a clear public health interest in keeping schools, day-care centers, medical clinics and other "sensitive uses” away from industrial plants, heavily traveled freeways and other pollution sources. The handbook acknowledges, however, that a rigorous application of that principle would require buffer zones and other constraints that might hamper urban infill projects, transit-oriented development and other hallmarks of the smart growth movement.

“Avoiding incompatible land uses can be a challenge in the context of mixed-use
industrial and residential zoning,” the documents says. “For a variety of reasons, government agencies and housing advocates have encouraged the proximity of affordable housing to employment centers, shopping areas, and transportation corridors, partially as a means to reduce vehicle trips and their associated emissions.”

To developers and builders, the policy recommendations appear to transfer responsibility for reducing the adverse health effects of air pollution from the polluter to innocent bystanders - namely, the building industry. Tim Piasky, director of environmental affairs for the Building Industry Association of Southern California, argued that the ARB should require diesel users to clean up their emissions rather than advise landowners to surrender property for buffer zones.

Requiring such buffers without compensating landowners, he suggested, could amount to an unconstitutional taking of property. Additional restrictions also would drive up the cost of housing, he warned.

Environmental justice advocates, however, are cheered by the prospect that health considerations might begin to play a stronger role in local land use decisions.

“We're not asking for sprawl” said Joseph Lyou, executive director of the California Environmental Rights Alliance. “We just want to make sure the growth in urban areas is done in an informed manner, and one that acknowledges the public health impacts of these land use decisions.”

Air Resource Board's “Air Quality and Land Use Handbook: A Community Health Perspective”: www.arb.ca.gov/ch/landuse.htm.
Building Industry Association of Southern California, (909) 396-9993.
California Environmental Rights Alliance, (310) 536-8237.