UCLA/Berkeley Law & Attorney General’s Office release report recommending policies to encourage sustainable real estate development

Removing the Roadblocks -- Cover PageFor those of you who haven’t memorized the AB 32 scoping plan pie chart that details the sources of greenhouse gas emissions in California by sector, “vehicle miles traveled” (or, as lay folks call it, “driving”) represents the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state — almost forty percent. We can hope and pray that improvements in fuel content and fuel efficiency will reduce these emissions, but the latest research shows that any future improvements will be overwhelmed by population growth and inefficient land use policies that require longer automobile trips for people to get around.

So what can be done? The answer is what we like to call “sustainable development.” This basically means that we need to build more walkable communities near major transit stops, so residents can walk or bike to most basic services without needing a car, and they can commute by train or rapid bus.  A lot of conservatives like to argue that we don’t have more of this development because the market doesn’t want it.  The American Dream, after all, is a big house with a backyard in the suburbs. And the fact that we don’t have more compact and walkable communities must be a reflection of that market demand, right?

Wrong.  A growing market segment would like to live in a walkable community, with mixed uses and more compact development. Young people, retirees, and married couples without children all represent demographics not served well by the current dominance of single-family housing as a business model.  Plus, for a younger generation of families, cities are no longer the scary places that their parents wanted to flee from.  Many cities are experiencing a cultural rebirth with vibrancy and cultural life in the downtown cores.  The real problem is that local land use policies, and the state and federal policies that support them, make this kind of development illegal.  Many homeowners fear new development and persuade their elected officials to prevent it from happening.

To tackle the problem, the environmental law programs at Berkeley and UCLA, as well as the California Attorney General’s Office, convened a gathering of the state’s top sustainable developers back in March.  These developers have experience (they call it “war stories”) building exactly the kind of development that California and the country needs to get out of our land use and climate change mess.

Based on the discussion at the gathering, we have drafted a white paper listing the primary roadblocks to this development as well as a comprehensive list of recommended policy solutions for elected leaders at all levels of government.  It is titled “Removing the Roadblocks: How to Make Sustainable Development Now.”  Our key finding is that local governments need to draft comprehensive neighborhood plans that allow for the compact development and mix of uses necessary for a sustainable and climate-friendly neighborhood. This advance planning, rather than engaging in haphazard project-by-project review, will allow for more diverse and walkable communities.  It will also help individual projects that are consistent with these plans to skip much of the painstaking environmental review that will have already been done at the planning level.  And without that project-specific review, local opposition will have a harder time attacking worthwhile development.

You can download a copy of the white paper here. And one final note: the gathering in March was the first of four that the two schools and the Attorney General’s Office are hosting this calendar year on climate change and how it affects specific business sectors, all generously funded by the Bank of America Foundation. We’ll release white papers from the other three workshops over the coming months, so stay tuned.


Reader Comments

3 Replies to “UCLA/Berkeley Law & Attorney General’s Office release report recommending policies to encourage sustainable real estate development”

  1. Great job on the report Ethan! I looked at some local development plans this summer and they were pathetically out of date. Do you think SB 375 will help change that? What can be done to put more pressure on local governments to update their plans?

  2. Thank you, Maya. Given that SB 375 does not require local governments to make their general plans conform to the 375 planning documents (aka the SCS), it is doubtful that SB 375 will have an immediate impact on these documents. The SCS, however, will force local zoning changes to account for the modified housing allocations that are likely under SB 375. These zoning changes must then be consistent with general plans. So the zoning may be a backdoor way to spur general plan changes. But a more immediate way to impact these local planning documents is through CEQA lawsuits (cue the AG theme song, whatever that is). Or at least through CEQA threatening letters. Many communities are now updating their general plans anyway, so this is a good time to force them to consider greenhouse gas emissions under CEQA when they do their planning documents. Improving general plans is a much more efficient and direct way to bring about better land use policies. SB 375, on the other hand, will take years to implement and contains no guarantees that local governments will actually follow through on the law’s requirements.

  3. The AG’s office has been telling local governments, in many cases with targeted letters, they should update their general plans since at least 2001, and many still haven’t. (And some who did find theirs out of date again, especially with the comparatively new imperative to focus on GHG emissions.) Additionally, general plans can easily be amended in most local jurisdictions in in California (and too often are amended to conform to a project’s specifications rather than the other way around), so even comprehensive general plan updates don’t guarantee better land use policies. But they help.

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About Ethan

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. In this capacity, h…

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About Ethan

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. In this capacity, h…

READ more