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San Francisco Chronicle

New Land-Use Law’s Message: Build Near Transit

Many California planning and environmental groups are heralding the passage of legislation designed to address global warming by curbing suburban sprawl as a watershed moment, perhaps the state’s most important land-use law in more than 30 years.

“It’s a sea change in the way we’re planning and funding growth and development,” said Stephanie Reyes, senior policy advocate with San Francisco’s Greenbelt Alliance. “The winds are shifting, and this is the time to get on board.”

But she and other advocates acknowledge that the importance of SB375, signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in late September, lies as much in the tone it sets as in what it will accomplish, which remains unclear.

Essentially the law, which will take years to implement, uses incentives and requirements to encourage local governments and builders to concentrate growth in urban areas or close to public transportation hubs in an effort to reduce Californians’ use of cars and lower their greenhouse gas emissions.

The ultimate impact will depend on how the legislation is put into effect, and whether its carrots and sticks will outweigh the cries from people who don’t want big new buildings on their block.

Whatever the law’s accomplishments, proponents hope it sends a clear message that will be reflected in future legislation and policies on the state and local levels: Dense, transit-oriented development is a critical goal for the collective good.

“A small step can be an important step if it’s the step that turns the corner,” said Tom Adams, board president of the California League of Conservation Voters, the principal drafter of the legislation. “I think it will change forever the way we look at land use in California.”

Critics, however, argue the law wrests away too much local control over land use decisions, potentially eliminates funding for transportation projects already promised to voters, and creates new grounds for lawsuits.

“Our greatest concerns were that the bill dramatically increased the exposure to litigation for future regional transportation plans, particularly for highway projects or any other projects that might be deemed to not support infill development,” said Bob McCleary, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority.

Other opponents include the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Association of Realtors.
Many developers supported the bill in its final form, after industry groups lobbied for changes. Key among them was a streamlining of the environmental approval process for projects that clearly meet the goals set forth in the law.

Paul Campos, attorney for the California Major Builders Council who worked on the bill, described the attitude toward the law among developers as cautious optimism.

“Our industry very much supports the goal of building more high-density projects in blighted areas, doing redevelopment and transit-oriented developments,” he said. “There is a demand for this type of development, and it’s not as if all the home builders in the U.S. and California are stupid.”

On the other hand, he said, there is a firm industry conviction that not all of the projected growth in California can be accommodated in multifamily urban properties, nor do all consumers want to live in such homes. There are clear downsides for those builders pursuing projects that don’t reflect the model envisioned in the law. Developments that significantly increase auto traffic will be more thoroughly scrutinized and may require more privately financed transportation infrastructure.

For proponents, that is precisely the point: discouraging traffic to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a meaningful way.

Transportation accounts for one-third of all CO2 emissions in the state, so tackling it is critical to achieving the goals of AB32, the landmark global warming legislation approved in 2006 that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California by 30 percent by 2020.

In the global warming context, land use is thought of as one leg of the three-legged transportation stool, along with vehicle fuel economy and low-carbon fuels like biodiesel. The metaphor may be apt, as studies have concluded the projected increases in driving, based on today’s sprawling development patterns, would overwhelm any emission reductions achieved through better gas mileage and cleaner fuels in the next few decades. Without improved land use, the stool topples, the argument goes.

For decades, Northern California’s growth hasn’t followed this model, with most building occurring outside the nine-county Bay Area, according to a report by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.

Between 1972 and 2004, only the outlying counties of Solano and Sonoma saw the number of people per square mile more than double, while that happened in every county in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, the group said.

SPUR and other planning groups attribute this to the reluctance of communities in the inner areas to add new housing on the scale of their suburban neighbors, which tends to drive up costs of existing stock. Those who want to own a home look farther and farther out, a pattern that necessitates ever longer drives to work, and car trips for most shopping and entertainment outings.

“The simple truth is we can not get there without land use as a fundamental framework,” said Peter Calthorpe, founder of San Francisco planning group Congress for New Urbanism, at a recent industry conference on the impacts of the law. “What’s exciting about California is we’re about to lead the way again, instead of following and dragging our feet.”

SB375 uses incentives and requirements to encourage local governments and developers to concentrate growth in urban areas or close to public transportation hubs in an effort to reduce Californians’ use of cars and lower their greenhouse gas emissions. But it is a complicated law, and its ultimate impact remains unclear.

According to analysis by California real estate lawyers with law firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, under the new legislation:

— The Air Resources Board must create committees, which include local transportation agencies, planning organizations and the public, that recommend regional greenhouse gas reduction targets. The board must review the report and provide regional guidelines by June 30, 2010.

— Metropolitan planning organizations, which include the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the Bay Area, must update their regional transportation plans with strategies that ensure future developments and the roads and public transportation that support them cut emissions by the goals set by the Air Resources Board.

— Every eight years, local governments must submit housing elements – essentially plans identifying areas that can accommodate predicted residential growth in a given region — that are consistent with the strategies set forth by the planning organizations. Within the next three years, they must rezone land to reflect these plans.

This zoning requirement is one of the strongest incentives to build dense, transit-oriented development within the law, said Ted Droettboom, regional planning program director for the Joint Policy Committee, a consortium of local planning organizations that includes the MTC. Once new zoning is in place, it becomes more difficult for local governments or residents to block builders pursuing these sorts of projects.

— Communities that approve projects inconsistent with these plans will have a more difficult time securing government financing for related transportation improvements — such as new roads and freeway interchanges.

— The environmental approval process will be streamlined for certain projects that achieve the goals of the law.

— Developments that may boost auto traffic will be more thoroughly scrutinized, and may require more privately financed transportation infrastructure.

— Projects with at least 49 percent of the units designated as affordable that meet local zoning requirements may qualify for a so called anti-NIMBY defense that allows the developments to move forward even if communities reject them.

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