State Scrutinizes Delta Urbanization

A proposal to expand the authority of the Delta Protection Commission and alter its membership is setting up a classic local-versus-state confrontation. Some state officials say greater oversight of land use decisions is needed to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta's natural resources and farms, while locals say the state is trying to intrude on local control.

Development interests have lined up on the side of local government, while environmentalists back an expanded role for the state. Farmers appear to fall in between, supporting some changes but not others. Developers and cities say the current system works well and contend that they have done nothing to violate the 1992 Delta Protection Act. But people on the other side say eagerness to build right to the edge of the Delta's "primary zone" has caused the increased scrutiny.

Local governments that fear greater state regulation "ought to do the right thing by the Delta," said Patrick Johnston, a former state senator who authored the Delta Protection Act. "The threat of urbanization hemming in the primary zone means that local governments need to be reminded that their development plans should not impinge on the opportunity to farm or on the wildlife habitat or the recreation opportunities that are so beloved by the people of California," Johnston said.

The proposed changes to the Delta Protection Commission (DPC) are embodied in AB 2476, by Democratic Assemblywoman Lois Wolk of Davis. The bill contains a number of recommendations and suggestions made in December by the Resources Agency. The bill's chances in the Legislature this year appear questionable because the measure could increase the cost of the Commission. But even if Wolk's bill fails this year, the concerns raised by the increased urbanization of the Delta's fringe are not going to disappear.

 

Last time around

The issues extend back to at least to the early 1990s, when the Legislature approved the original Delta Protection Act. At the time, backers of the measure said that development, especially in the Delta's eastern, southern and southwest edges, was encroaching onto important farmland, and threatening wildlife habitat and public recreation. The act established the 19-member Commission and charged it with preparing a land use and resource management plan. The Commission adopted such a plan in early 1995, and then worked with the five counties and ten (now eleven) cities within the Commission's jurisdiction to adopt or mimic the plan's policies. Originally conceived as a temporary agency, the Commission had its sunset date extended twice by lawmakers, who made the entity permanent in 2000.

Besides creating the Commission, the 1992 legislation also drew boundaries. Essentially, all territory within the legal boundary of the Delta established in 1959 and based largely on the extent of irrigation was placed in either the primary zone or the secondary zone. The primary zone designation covers 492,000 acres, while another 247,000 acres lie in the secondary zone. What distinguished the primary zone from the secondary zone was this: The cities laid claim to land in the secondary zone via city limits, spheres of influence, general plan boundaries or service boundaries. Thus, the primary and secondary zone boundaries are political lines and are not based on ecology.

The Commission is not a regulatory agency. It comments on projects in the primary zone, and, sometimes, in the secondary zone. Projects in the primary zone may be appealed to the Commission, a rare occurrence. Since 1992, development in the secondary zone has continued with almost no limitations imposed by the act or the Commission. However, large-scale development within the primary zone has not been permitted.

According to a background paper from Assemblywoman Wolk's office, about 45,000 acres of Delta agricultural land have been converted to urban uses since 1992. "The political and physical landscape in and around the Delta has changed rapidly in the last 12 years," Wolk said. "The Commission is ill-equipped to keep pace with all that is swirling around them."

 

This year's model

What concerns Wolk and others is not only recent development, but the future. Some of the fastest growing parts of Northern California lie in the secondary zone. The 11,000-unit River Islands project planned in Lathrop lies entirely in the secondary zone, as does the new 16,000-unit San Joaquin County community of Mountain House, where construction has started. Also in the secondary zone are all of the Contra Costa County cities of Brentwood and Oakley, and the unincorporated community of Discovery Bay West. Portions of Tracy, Stockton and West Sacramento all growing cities in the Central Valley lie in the secondary zone, as well.

Wolk and supporters say that before the secondary zone is built out, a study should be completed to ascertain the impact of development on the Delta as a whole. Wolk said her bill would "place the long-term needs of the Delta and its resources front and center."

Wolk's bill reflects recommendations and suggestions in a December 31 report by the Resources Agency to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. The report said the Commission has worked well. "However, increased urbanization within and surrounding the Delta and expanded statewide interest in the natural, cultural and recreational resources of the region justify a re-examination of the structure, roles and responsibilities of the DPC," the report states.

"If additional funds could be identified, [the Resources] Agency would suggest that the legislative scope of the DPC's area of interest be expanded to provide them with a clear direction and authority to comment, and potentially take appellate action, on any land use issue or development within the secondary zone which the Commission deems to be potentially impacting to resources of the Delta," the report continues.

The Resources Agency, however, has not taken a position on AB 2476.

The lack of a study is a concern not only to Wolk, but to her opponents, who ask how the lawmaker can change a system when she does not know that the existing one is broken. Wolk's bill jumps to the conclusion that the Delta Protection Commission needs additional authority, said Richard Lyon, a lobbyist for the California Building Industry Association.

"This whole bill bypasses coming up with good, sound scientific evidence that environmental conditions in the Delta have turned for the worse in the last 12 years," Lyon said. "Saying it is so doesn't make it so."

If Wolk wants to preserve farmland and habitat, there are options besides regulation, said William Geyer, a lobbyist for some Delta landowners. Incentives, such as payments to farmers to raise "habitat as a crop" could stem development, Geyer said. "People say incentives don't work, but nobody has tried in the context of the Delta," said Geyer.

Lathrop City Councilman Augie Beltran, who sits on the Commission, was more blunt, calling AB 2476 "crap." Wolk is trying to impede growth in the region, which would only drive development elsewhere, Beltran charged. He suspects the goal is creation of an agency similar to the Coastal Commission, which has a hand in regulating all development and conservation activities in the Coastal Zone.

Wolk denies that she wants to create a regulatory agency and instead says her bill finds a middle ground. The bill would require the Commission to update the land use and resources plan so that the plan considers secondary zone land uses that could impact the primary zone. All local general plans would have to conform with the Commission's revised plan, which would supercede conflicting local plans. The Commission could hear appeals of some secondary zone projects. The bill would also require payment of fees or the purchase of conservation easements to offset development's impacts to agricultural land or habitat in the secondary zone. Also, the bill would authorize the Commission to facilitate multi-objective flood control programs and conservation programs in both zones.

Membership on the board would change, too. State agency representation would be decreased from six members to two. Local reclamation membership would be decreased from five members to two. Replacing those seven appointees would be two representatives each from environmental, agricultural and recreation interests, and the public member of Cal-Fed. Local government representation on the 19-member board would remain unchanged five county supervisors and three city appointees.

 

Delta coordination

Rio Vista Mayor and Commission member Marci Coglianese said she understands the desire to update the Commission's membership and role, but Coglianese favors a less aggressive approach than Wolk does.

"It does not hurt at all to raise the question of the effectiveness of the Commission," Coglianese said. "I happen to think that if the Commission did not exist, they would have to invent it," she said, pointing to the agency's role in facilitating dialogue.

It's that ongoing dialogue that sets the Commission apart from the California Bay-Delta Authority (Cal-Fed), said Commission Executive Director Margit Aramburu. The Commission has served as something of a liaison between Delta landowners and farmers, and the giant Cal-Fed planning effort, which seeks to retool much of the region's plumbing for the betterment of water quality and reliability, and for species.

In fact, a number of government entities have some level of jurisdiction over some aspect of the Delta. One of the others is the Bureau of Reclamation, which in recent months has begun investigating urbanization issues. The Bureau is the state agency responsible for flood control, and recent court decisions have made clear that the state has liability for some flood damage (see CP&DR Legal Digest, January 2004). But it was the River Islands project in Lathrop that started the discussion at the Bureau, said Stephen Bradley, the agency's chief engineer. River Islands would place 11,000 housing units and an employment center for 15,000 people entirely within the San Joaquin River's 100-year floodplain. River Islands proponents propose protecting the development with new levies that are up to 100-yards across.

"How many of these projects are going to come before the board?" Bradley asked rhetorically. "Nobody really knows. Each little city has its own area, and each county has its area, and the developers have their goals."

Backers of AB 2476 say the DPC is the logical repository of land use plans and development proposals in the Delta. Last year, however, the Legislative Analyst's Office urged elimination of the DPC. The LAO reasoned that the DPC had fulfilled its original mission and Cal-Fed could handle ongoing issues. Lawmakers agreed to fully fund the Commission's $300,000 annual budget, but on condition that the Resources Agency examine the agency, a requirement that resulted in December's report. This year, the DPC is recommended to receive half its funding from the state, with the other half coming from local governments for the first time a proposal that has exacerbated the state-local split over the Commission.

Johnston, the architect of the DPC, declined to endorse AB 2476, but he called Wolk "a tower of strength" in her efforts to protect the Delta. As long as local governments view the secondary zone "as an opportunity for subdivisions and strip malls," the state will have concerns, he said.

 

Contacts:

Office of Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, (916) 319-2008.

Patrick Johnston, (916) 447-4952.

Augie Beltran, City of Lathrop, (209) 858-2860, ext. 323.

Marci Coglianese, City of Rio Vista, (707) 374-6612.

Richard Lyon, California Building Industry Association, (916) 443-7933.

Stephen Bradley, Reclamation Board, (916) 574-0609.

William Geyer, Resource Landowners Coalition, (916) 444-9346.

Delta Protection Commission website: www.delta.ca.gov