Deal reached on bill that would give state a voice over local land-use plans

As a legislative committee reviewed the Air Resources Board’s plan to reduce greenhouse gasses, a deal was announced on a new bill that will implement a key piece of the plan, and give the state a voice in limiting urban sprawl.

A broad coalition, including environmentalists, builders and local governments, crowded into a Capitol hearing room Wednesday to announce an agreement on a bill, SB 375 by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. It would give new regional councils, and the state Air Resources Board, new authority over local land-use and transportation planning decisions.

The goal, say stakeholders, is to create new, “smart-growth” developments that combine infill housing and transportation hubs to reduce the need to drive automobiles.

Under the agreement, developers would be able to expedite their projects and get  exemptions from the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s principal environmental protection statute. In return, environmentalists would have a greater say in how and where projects are located to best reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“SB 375 would become the vehicle to implement the land use portion of AB 32,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board. “It would carry out the draft scoping plan for the land-use sector.”

The amended SB 375 is expected to be heard in Assembly Appropriations Thursday.

Under the draft plan released by the ARB in June, the state seeks to eliminate 2 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions through land-use decisions that will reduce the need for Californians to drive. But Nichols said the ARB would not get involved in micromanaging local land-use decisions.

“The ARB will not be making land-use decisions,” she said. “We will just set targets. It will be up to the locals to implement the plans that meet those targets.”

Under its plan to implement AB 32, the ARB has devised a framework that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 169 million metric tons over the next 20 years -– a 30 percent reduction from current 2020 projections.

Steinberg said if his bill is signed into law, it will become a key part of that plan.

“I’m proud that local governments, housing builders, environmental advocates and others all recognize that to reduce greenhouse gasses and promote a better way of life, our communities must change the way they grow.”

In the draft plan, about 1.5 percent of that reduction – 2 million metric tons — is expected to come from land-use decisions.
Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, said he would like to see land-use decisions account for a bigger piece of the overall greenhouse gas reductions set forth in AB 32.

“The governor talked about 18 million metric tons at one point,” Jones said Wednesday. “It concerns me that we’re really missing an opportunity to do more.”

Steinberg said SB 375 could well lead to larger greenhouse gas reductions, but those targets would ultimately be set by the ARB.
Under the deal hatched in SB 375, developers would get assurances that new developments would be streamlined. They would also get key exemptions from the California Environmental Quality Act.

“The CEQA relief is huge for us,” said Ed Manning, lobbyist for the California Major Builders Council.

Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo said she was confident the bill would allow local cities to retain control over land-use decisions. “This bill sets forward goals and objectives on a regional level, but leaves decisions to the jurisdictions themselves,” she said.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Tom Adams, president of the California League of Conservation Voters, said the bill mounted to “new authority for the ARB.”

“This bill lets the ARB set targets for greenhouse gas emissions, but all planning decisions will be left to the local governments.”
Steinberg said his bill does not punish cities that refuse to adhere to the regional growth plan. But it would push those cities to the back of the line when it comes time to dole out the more than $5 billion in federal and state transportation funds that are available to cities annually.

But land use is a small portion of the overall AB 32 implementation plan.

A variety of interests – environmental, pro-business and legislative – said the proposals before the ARB lack critical detail, such as market modeling and analyses of how the “cap-and-trade” system actually would work in practice.

Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Riverside, said he was concerned that AB 32 was being implemented without enough consideration over how the new restrictions would impact the state’s economy.

“The ARB is pursuing a wide range of ideas without a firm grasp of the economic costs,” he said. “I don’t know how we can honestly evaluate the strategies in the scoping plan without that analysis.”

Nichols said the ARB was “in the process of completing macroeconomic modeling” to try to come up with the proper regulatory mix to reach the greenhouse gas reduction goals without harming the state’s economy. She expects those models to be released later this month.

But, she said, there are “limits on the details of modeling,” and that the ARB would not be able to come up with a dollar figure connected to the implementation costs of AB 32.

“I’m setting you up now for disappointment,” she said.

 Democrats also had some criticisms of the plan, saying it was too cautious and vague.

“It’s a reasonable but cautious approach,” Kehoe said of the ARB’s proposal. “My main criticism is that the plan was not nearly detailed enough. The discussions that went on between ARB staff and other stakeholders were on a much more detailed level than what was reflected in the plan.”

Kehoe said “the appendix cured a little bit of that,” but some big questions remain.

Among them is the notion of a western regional market that has emerged as a critical issue in California’s law to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The original law, AB 32 by former Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, Assemblyman Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, makes no mention of such a system. But last year, the governors of several states jointly announced their support of the regional market, called the Western Climate Initiative.

But environmentalists remain concerned at the WCI, an informal body that was created a year after the passage of the California law. One critic likened the WCI to a political adjunct of the highly-political Western Governor’s Association and described it as a “political chat room of the governors, with lots of flash and dash.” Another questioned the governors’ regional authority to create and enforce the carbon-credit market.

“WCI isn’t like some governing body. It is just a decision-making forum. The final recommendations will be in September, and then it will be up to the states to implement them,” said Jason Barbose of Environment California, which has raised questions about the WCI. “That agreement isn’t binding in any legal sense,” he added.

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