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Governor signs anti-sprawl bill

Submitted by News Desk on Fri, 10/03/2008 - 11:30am

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a landmark bill Tuesday to discourage sprawl in future decades, completing a deal among environmentalists, homebuilders and local governments on the final day of bill signing.

Senate Bill 375, by Democratic Sen. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, will push California communities to consider climate change impacts of development in regional planning, with an emphasis on reducing car travel.

Environmentalists and other proponents feared the bill was in trouble as Schwarzenegger officials raised transportation and business concerns last week. But the Republican governor ultimately embraced SB 375 as a "first in the nation" effort to link land-use planning and greenhouse-gas reductions.

"This legislation constitutes the most sweeping revision of land-use policies since Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)," Schwarzenegger wrote in a statement.

The bill requires the California Air Resources Board to set regional targets by September 2010 for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The state will use its annual $5 billion pot of transportation money to encourage regions to embrace compact residential development.

The legislation also will relax CEQA requirements for housing projects that meet goals for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, giving homebuilders incentive to pursue high-density projects near transit.

Steinberg sees SB 375 as a necessary step to meet the state's greenhouse-gas reduction goals. Under 2006's AB 32, the state must reduce its greenhouse gases 25 percent by 2020.

"This fundamentally changes the way we think about growth," Steinberg said. "It does not reduce growth. I think growth is inevitable and a good thing. But it will allow California to grow in ways that are sustainable for our environment."

Some business groups remained critical because the bill did not allow commercial development to benefit from CEQA changes. And some local officials said it overreached by allowing the state to dictate greenhouse-gas reduction goals for each region.

In his signing statement, Schwarzenegger asked lawmakers to address four areas next year, including a business-backed proposal to allow commercial projects to benefit from a streamlined CEQA process.

Steinberg said he promised the governor that next year he will clarify that projects funded by the 2006 voter-approved transportation bonds will be exempt. But Steinberg said he agreed only to have "good-faith" discussions about the commercial development issue.

"The balance we struck was so precarious, we couldn't pile anything more on top of the bill," Steinberg said.

Proponents believe the measure will push communities to pursue more infill projects and new communities that are transit-focused, discouraging car travel despite future population growth.

Transportation, including commute and errand traffic and trucks carrying goods, accounted for 38 percent of California's greenhouse-gas emissions from 2002 to 2004, according to a CARB report.

The bill is based on a "smart growth" plan adopted by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

"Californians will see more infill," said SACOG Director Mike McKeever. "They'll see higher-density housing, particularly in transit corridors. The new areas will look more like existing neighborhoods with a mix of uses between schools, stores and housing."

Homebuilders reached agreement in August with environmentalists and local government officials after receiving a streamlined CEQA approval process for projects that meet certain environmental goals.

Other business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce and commercial builders, remained opposed to the bill because they felt it could create two separate greenhouse-gas reduction processes with which they would have to comply, said Matthew Hargrove of the California Business Properties Association.

"There's no guarantee within SB 375 that if you meet all of its goals, you won't get sued under AB 32," Hargrove said. "We were looking for clarity on that. We also had hoped our projects would be included in the same way residential projects were."

While the California League of Cities and the California State Association of Counties support the bill, some individual local officials were opposed.

Auburn City Councilman Kevin Hanley said he fears that foothills communities such as his could lose transportation funding and suffer worse traffic than already exists. He also said local governments, not CARB, should set regional targets for emissions.