August 29, 2008

Biggest Land Use Bill in California in 32 Years is One Step From the Governor’s Desk

As We Were Watching the Democratic National Convention, Bipartisanship Broke Out on the California Assembly Floor

By Frank D. Russo

As many of our eyes and ears were pointed towards Denver and the truly historic Democratic National Convention that will mark the first time in our nation’s history that a candidate of another race is nominated to run for President, it escaped the attention of Californians, including many who closely observe our state Capitol, that a major bill—one bringing into harmony the way our state grows, plans for housing, and protects our environment—has passed the state Assembly and is about to receive final passage in the Senate.

SB 375, by incoming Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, has been called the “trifecta” of the impossible, and the most important land use bill in California since the enactment of the Coastal Act 32 years ago. Steinberg has harnessed a coalition of forces that usually are at loggerheads with each other, including the California Building Industry Association, the California League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, California League of Cities, California State Association of Counties, and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation to support this bill.

The California Assembly on a truly bipartisan vote of 49 to 22, voted to pass SB 375. It is one step away from making that giant leap to Governor Schwarzenegger’s desk. Eight Republicans—Adams, Aghazarian, Berryhill, Blakeslee, Evans, Horton, Houston, and Plescia joined 41 Democrats in voting for this bill. It was a joy to watch the debate and to see Republicans speaking in favor of the bill.

Usually when this happens, a bill has been watered down to next to nothing. But this is the first-in-the-nation bill to link greenhouse gas reduction to transportation and housing planning.

“I thank the Assembly for joining with an incredible coalition that’s come together on a way for California to accommodate its growth in a way that improves the environment and enhances our quality of life,” Steinberg said after the vote. “The vote today is a reaffirmation that the Legislature can solve our toughest challenges when we work together.”

SB 375 marks the first time major environmental organizations, local governments, major homebuilders and affordable housing advocates have agreed on a plan to account for California’s population growth and achieve AB 32 greenhouse gas emission reduction goals at the same time.

In 2006 without a single Republican legislator voting for it, the Legislature passed and Governor Schwarzenegger signed a landmark bill that has received national and international acclaim, AB 32, which mandates that California reduce its greenhouse gas levels to 1990 levels by 2020. Because cars and light trucks emit about 30 percent of greenhouse gasses in California, reducing the time that commuters spend in their cars through smart, coordinated transportation and housing planning is essential to meeting the requirements of AB 32.

What SB 375 Does in a Nutshell

SB 375 offers local governments regulatory and other incentives to encourage more compact new development and transportation alternatives. The basics of the bill are as follows:

• Transportation planning: The California Air Resources Board (CARB) will set regional greenhouse gas reduction targets after consultation with local governments. That target must be incorporated within that region’s Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), the long-term blueprint of a region’s transportation system. The resulting model will be called the Sustainable Communities Strategy.

• Housing planning: Each region’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) – the state mandated process for local jurisdictions to address their fair share of regional housing needs – will be adjusted to become aligned with the land use plan in that region’s Sustainable Communities Strategy in its RTP (which will account for greenhouse gas reduction targets).

• CEQA reform: Environmental review will create incentives to implement the strategy, especially transit priority projects.

What Has Been Said About SB 375

On August 6, 2008, shortly before the Capitol Press Corps scrambled to cover Governor Schwarzenegger’s press conference where he announced he would veto all bills sent to his desk before passage of the California budget, there was a most unusual assemblage of representatives speaking in a hearing room in the Capitol singing the praises of SB 375 and Senators Steinberg and Ducheny, the authors of this measure. Most of what they had to say was overshadowed by the Governor’s remarks and the continuing budget impasse.

A beaming Senator Steinberg, started off the news of the agreement on SB 375, saying:

“I am very, very happy to be joined this morning by an unlikely and powerful coalition for changing the way that we think and act about sustainable growth here in California. For I think that for the first time ever, or at least the first time in memory, we have leaders of the environmental community, the building community, the local government community coming together to agree on how to accommodate California’s growth. It is also the first time in the country that the issues of land use, transportation, housing, and climate change have been brought together in a comprehensive piece of legislation.”

Others joined in. Ray Becker, the Chair of California Building Industry Association announced, “California homebuilders are pleased to join today with Senator Steinberg and Senator Ducheny on the occasion of this important compromise agreement. SB 375 is a measure that truly serves the public interest – improving the quality of life of all Californians by ensuring a healthy environment, affordable places to live and the mobility necessary to keep the state’s economy strong and prosperous. CBIA commends Senator Steinberg for his leadership.”

Speaker after speaker continued. But it was Tom Adams, President of the California League of Conservation Voters, one of the sponsors of the bill, who had these words to say that put this in a historical perspective:

“In my view, SB 375 is the most important land use bill in California since enactment of the Coast Act. It has taken 32 years since that bill was enacted to bring a coalition together who could make major land use change in California. Senator Steinberg has accomplished that in this bill and it is an amazing achievement on his part and we are tremendously grateful for his leadership.

“This is the equation for solving the problems that we face in terms of housing, getting shorter commute times for people. When you have shorter commutes, you reduce vehicle miles traveled. It’s also important to recognize that you reduce traffic congestion.

“What this bill will do is say that regional housing needs assessment and the strategies that will be adopted under the regional transportation planning process will be aligned. The housing distribution throughout the region will be put in locations that will help California achieve its strategic environmental goals of climate policy, air quality, and energy conservation.

“Finally, the bill amends the California Environmental Quality Act, the environmental quality act that is California’s premiere statute for protecting the environment….So that the procedures for environmental review of projects rewards projects that are consistent with strategies that achieve our climate goals, air quality and energy conservation and helps us promote the kinds of transit priority projects that are needed for the future of California.

“Each of these issue areas—land use, the regional housing needs allocation program, and the California Environmental Quality Act are regarded by many people as sacred cows. They certainly are, at a minimum, a minefield for anyone who want to amend them. [Laughter]

“I think to say that we would have just done land use would have been incredible. Or just to have done the housing program or just to have done CEQA. This bill is a trifecta of the impossible. Senator Steinberg has managed to pull together a bill that brings some of the most important and most difficult statutes in the state of California into alignment so that we can achieve housing that is needed, environmental quality, climate policy, air quality, reduced congestion, increased housing choices, and have a better transportation policy for California.”

He then turned the podium over to Steinberg who picked up on the trifecta remark and said he didn’t realize the bill dealt with the struggling horse racing industry in California.

Kudos to Steinberg, to all who came together for the benefit of the state and hammered this out—and to the Republicans who voted for it. We won’t even go into those who still voted against the bill. You can’t win them all, but this is a win-win for the state, which will hopefully spread like AB 32 across the nation.

Reprinted from the California Progress Report (]

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