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In Brief

State Sen. Joe Dunn has vowed to reintroduce a bill that would put teeth in the housing element law by fining cities that refuse to comply with the housing mandate. Dunn, chairman of the Senate Housing Committee, said he would take his case directly to cities and would not negotiate with the League of California Cities, which was a chief opponent to his housing element reform bill during the last two years. Speaking in November at the Public Policy Institute of California office in San Francisco, Dunn also said lawmakers might pursue creation of a state process by which housing developers could appeal local land use decisions. Builders need recourse when a local government makes an arbitrary decision "with no justification, designed to keep out a legitimate project," said Dunn, who was unsure what form the appeals process would take. Dunn's housing element proposal during the 2001-02 legislative session was among the most controversial bills in Sacramento. The bill, SB 910, eventually died in the Assembly. "It's coming back in January," said the Santa Ana Democrat, who said he aims to cut funding from jurisdictions that have no intention of complying with the law. League of California Cities spokeswoman Megan Taylor called Dunn's punitive approach "far too simplistic." Cities are reluctant to approve housing because housing does not generate enough revenue to pay for municipal services, she said. Plus, there is not enough money from the state or locally to fund infrastructure that serves new residences, she said. Dunn conceded that the current local government finance system is flawed because of decisions by state lawmakers. Nevertheless, he predicted little movement on the issue during 2003. Phil Serna, vice president of the Home Builders Association of Northern California, welcomed Dunn's remarks. Serna said the majority of Bay Area cities and counties are out of compliance with the housing element law. Smart growth took a hit when the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released a survey on land use in November. Overwhelmingly, the 2010 adults surveyed prefer living in a single-family house, drive alone to work, and do not think their commute is bad. "What this says to us," said Marc Baldassare, PPIC research and survey director, "is that changing the status quo is not going to be easy." Among the more provocative results: 86% of respondents said they want to live in a single-family, detached home; 75% drive alone to work, and 81% of those lone commuters said they were satisfied with their commute but 51% of respondents said traffic congestion in their region is a big problem. Additionally, 44% said availability of affordable housing is a big problem, including 59% of Bay Area respondents; 67% said availability of parks and open space is not a problem. Statewide, 50% of respondents said local government should steer growth to already developed areas. The north-south split was significant, however, as 62% of Bay Area respondents want to grow in existing areas, while only 42% of Los Angeles respondents supported the idea. The poll also found only 49% believe the state should provide guidelines for local land use. The poll found little interest in smart growth fundamentals such as short commutes, easy access to stores and neighborhood public spaces. When naming their top criterion for choosing a home or neighborhood, people listed safety most often, followed by living space and schools. The poll further found that Latinos are disenfranchised, as only 18% had ever attended a public meeting about a land use issue, and only 11% had ever contacted a public official about a land use matter roughly half the rate of non-Hispanic whites. The full survey is available on the PPIC website, www.ppic.org. Nearly 4 million acres of critical habitat for the California red-legged frog have been eliminated under an agreement between the Fish & Wildlife Service and the Home Builders Association of Northern California. Washington D.C. District Judge Court Richard Leon approved the settlement of the builders' suit after earlier stalling the agreement because environmental groups had not had a chance to comment. The federal agency accepted the builders' argument that the critical habitat designation failed to assess the economic impacts of development restrictions. As part of the settlement, Judge Leon ordered the Fish & Wildlife Service to prepare a new economic impact analysis within two years and reconsider critical habitat designations. In April 2001, federal officials designated 4.1 million acres in 28 California counties as critical habitat for the frog, which was listed as a threatened species in 1996 (see CP&DR Environment Watch, December 2000). Under the settlement approved in November, only 124,000 acres in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties and 75,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest remain as critical habitat. Riverside County supervisors in November approved a 4,063-unit housing development on about 930 acres in the community of Menifee, south of Highway 74 and east of Interstate 215. The Brookfield Homes project is one of the largest in Riverside County. Sutter County supervisors have changed their minds again and decided to keep the Williamson Act. The county offered Williamson Act property tax breaks to farmers for the first time in 2001, but earlier this year supervisors said the county would drop the program because they feared the state would not backfill lost taxes in the future. Farmers protested, and supervisors could not muster three votes for formal action.
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