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Remaining Environmentally Conscious during Tough Times an Imperative for Local Communities

Martin Bennett

Historically the City of Petaluma has been a model in Sonoma County for implementing innovative public policy that encourages smart, responsible, and equitable growth.

In 2006 Greenbelt Alliance released a “Bay Area Smart Growth Scorecard” that ranked Petaluma the #1 city in the region for developing policy to prevent sprawl, to provide affordable housing and to promote high density mixed-use development.

Petaluma again provided leadership by approving last fall the first ‘Community Impact Report’ (CIR) requirement for new commercial developments of more than 25,000 square feet, including retail and grocery stores and hotels. The legislation was proposed by labor, environmental, business, and community organizations. A CIR is a comprehensive analysis of the fiscal and economic impacts of a proposed major development project.

All too often, particularly during a recession and decline of city and county revenues, there is a rush to provide a new development ‘quick fix’ which might boost sales tax revenue. The CIR is a ‘balance sheet’ that will give policy makers and the public complete and objective data with regard to the benefits and costs of a proposed project.

The report is much shorter and simpler than the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the developer pays for it, and a city-designated consultant does the work.

A CIR will, for example, assess the contribution of a proposed project to the local tax base. Will a project generate new revenue such as sales tax, property tax, or the bed tax? Will a project increase city revenue or simply move around part of the tax base from one project to another?

A CIR will evaluate the economic viability of a project by analyzing market conditions and projected sales or occupancy rates. The report will also examine the impacts of a proposed development on local business. Will a project fill a market niche or will loss of sales due to increased competition hurt existing businesses?

The report will assess the employment characteristics of new jobs created, including the number of full- and part-time jobs and wage levels and benefits. A CIR will ask: What types of jobs will the project bring to the city?

A CIR will also examine costs of the proposed project to the taxpayer, including necessary infrastructure improvements and increased demand for public services such as police, fire, and road maintenance. Finally, the report will identify hidden costs such as public subsidies for Food Stamps, Medi-Cal, and uncompensated medical care for workers filling new jobs that may not pay a living wage or provide health insurance.

A project, for example, may bring a significant number of new jobs to the community, but if most of these jobs are without medical benefits, what will be the impact on local hospitals and public clinics? According to a 2006 study by the New American Foundation, California counties spend $1.8 billion annually to provide health care for 1.3 million uninsured adults. A CIR will enable policymakers and the public to evaluate the trade-offs and public costs of a

CIRs can help avoid delays and costly lawsuits that hurt both the developer and the public. A CIR is completed early in the development process, and prior to the completion of the EIR. Residents are encouraged to participate in the process, providing comment and submitting additional information at a public hearing when city officials and staff review the CIR.

Unlike the required EIR, a CIR does not mandate changes to mitigate negative impacts. However, the CIR can facilitate a public dialogue between residents, the city council, and the developer at an early stage, resulting in changes to the project and the devising of ‘win-win’ solutions in response to concerns both policymakers and residents raise

Moreover, developers will no longer have to deal with community concerns in an ad-hoc or piecemeal way. The CIR will showcase the community benefits of a proposed project and facilitate the development of a community consensus. This should enable a project to move forward expeditiously to obtain permit approvals and thus shorten the time line for the developer.

The experience in cities that have adopted a CIR requirement, such as San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego, indicates that this policy tool can begin to reorient the development process to yield positive and timely outcomes for all.

Petaluma has just adopted a revised twenty-year General Plan that emphasizes city-centered infill development and mixed-use projects. Petaluma hopes to attract employers who provide good jobs with a living wage and benefits, and to enhance the diversity of retail outlets while ensuring that existing local businesses will thrive. The council will use the information collected for a CIR to evaluate if a project conforms to the new General Plan and is a “net positive” for the community.

Ultimately, regional planning for smart and equitable growth will be enhanced if all cities in the region adopt a CIR policy. There is a window of opportunity over the next several years to incorporate CIRs into the planning process. Cities in the region must comply with state mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2015. Moreover, voter approval this past election of funding for SMART, a two-county commuter rail system along the Highway 101 corridor from Cloverdale to Larkspur, means that CIRs will complement planning to reduce pollution and to promote ‘transit oriented development’ near SMART train stations in Novato, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa.

Martin J. Bennett teaches American history at Santa Rosa Junior College and serves as Co-Chair of the Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County. Please go to to view the legislation implemented in Petaluma and to download model CIRs for projects in Los Angeles and San Diego.


California Progress Report

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