Is California’s Anti-Sprawl Law Worth the Investment?

San Diego: drink it in!

This past Friday, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) approved the very first Sustainable Communities Strategy in the state as part of its regional transportation plan. The strategy document is the critical planning piece mandated by California’s anti-sprawl law, SB 375. As I discussed over the summer, SANDAG’s plan meets its greenhouse gas reduction goals largely through congestion management and decreased ridership from the down economy.  It does not fundamentally alter land use patterns, which are the province of local governments. As a result, progress on reducing per capita greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled actually backslides by 2035 and 2050 — hardly the long-term game-changer we need. The California Attorney General has already weighed in with some harsh comments, and we can expect a lawsuit any day now from environmental groups.

There is reason to expect that the SANDAG plan can be improved, either through lawsuits this round or in future planning efforts. But the legislative language of SB 375, coupled with the political realities of trying to empower regional entities to influence local land use decisions, means that SB 375 is unlikely to make a big impact on land use and transportation anytime soon. SANDAG was the first out of the gate, but other regional entities around the state are likely to suffer the same fate with their plans.

The question this process should raise for smart growth advocates is whether the money and time invested in SB 375 implementation represents the most effective use of limited resources. Certainly the regional framework that SB 375 provides is important, but regional entities in California (like SANDAG) have no authority or influence over local land use patterns. Indeed, the governing boards are comprised of local elected officials who generally resist having a regional body tell them what to do on land use. The main hope is that the SB 375 planning process will build local support for sustainable development patterns. That remains a big “if” though, particularly in less progressive parts of the state like northern San Diego County.

SB 375 has also stimulated investment in transportation modeling, to the tune of $10 million in California. These models may be useful in a number of planning contexts. But could that money have been spent more efficiently? What if California had dedicated $10 million to bolstering local planning efforts for sustainable development in the state’s critical growth areas? Planning departments have been decimated by the real estate downturn, and yet smart local planning for sustainable development is one of the most promising tools to meet the goals SB 375 was designed to achieve.

Similarly, what if the philanthropic dollars and regional resources invested in this process instead went to local planning efforts and to build support for reinventing redevelopment for transit-oriented neighborhoods? What if these resources instead empowered a small coalition of infill builders, such as the California Infill Builders Association, to make the case to local governments throughout the state to redo their local plans and build support for sustainable development?

With limited money and time for smart growth policies in the state, advocates must ensure that their efforts will result in the biggest bang for the buck. SB 375 may lead to some positive outcomes, but at what cost?

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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Is California’s Anti-Sprawl Law Worth the Investment?”

  1. Ethan — your challenge here is spell out more clearly and precisely what you think the alternatives are. For example, what is your vision of philanthropic dollars going to “local planning efforts and . . . build[ing] support for reinventing redevelopment for transit-oriented neighborhoods”? It seems to me that the transportation piece is a crucial part of doing this. If you try to do more local planning efforts, opponents will say that they won’t move to TODs until there is a better transportation infrastructure. In any event, it would be interesting to see your two-pager to the California Endowment about what it should invest in now.

    Maybe we should think about it this way: the first two federal air quality acts (in 1965 and 1967) were pretty weak. Even the 1970 Clean Air Act was pretty weak. But you keep coming back, year after year, tweaking, negotiating your coalitions, amending here and there, and then you actually get a bill that works well. My sense is: engineers have been perfecting the internal combustion engine for more than a century. SB 375 has had three years in the middle of the worst economic contraction since the 1930’s. I think that we can give it more time.

  2. Ethan — your challenge here is spell out more clearly and precisely what you think the alternatives are. For example, what is your vision of philanthropic dollars going to “local planning efforts and . . . build[ing] support for reinventing redevelopment for transit-oriented neighborhoods”? It seems to me that the transportation piece is a crucial part of doing this. If you try to do more local planning efforts, opponents will say that they won’t move to TODs until there is a better transportation infrastructure. In any event, it would be interesting to see your two-pager to the California Endowment about what it should invest in now.

    Maybe we should think about it this way: the first two federal air quality acts (in 1965 and 1967) were pretty weak. Even the 1970 Clean Air Act was pretty weak. But you keep coming back, year after year, tweaking, negotiating your coalitions, amending here and there, and then you actually get a bill that works well. My sense is: engineers have been perfecting the internal combustion engine for more than a century. SB 375 has had three years in the middle of the worst economic contraction since the 1930’s. I think that we can give it more time.

  3. I’m all in favor of taking the long view of major policy reforms (i.e. comparing health care reform to the first, weak version of social security). But I don’t see it happening with SB 375 unless one critical and massive reform occurs, and that is the complete overhaul of how MPOs are structured and empowered. In short, California would have to move to a true system of regional governance, with directly elected regional governors that trump local authority on land use and transit. Otherwise, we’re still left with the same dynamic: local governments hold all the cards. And if anything, the economic downturn has masked the weakness of SB 375: new sprawl is dead in this market, and the MPOs can meet their SB 375 targets pretty easily with so many people out of work and not driving.

    In any event, I don’t see transit as a big obstacle that SB 375 can adequately address: a significant portion (if not most) transit dollars actually flow to and from the counties, not the MPOs. SB 375 has no power over that money. And there are other, non-SB 375 ways of bolstering transit spending (we have a white paper on the subject with many proposals, if you’re interested). Plus, you can reduce VMTs and GHGs by building right even without transit. Building smart neighborhoods, with walkability to services and jobs, can cut down VMT significantly.

    My two-pager on where the dollars should go would start with the state redirecting money from SB 375 consultants to bolstering programs like the Strategic Growth Council, which provides grants for local governments doing sustainability plans. The money could also fund an OPR “swat team” of planners to help local governments redo their plans. Philanthropists, meanwhile, should be dedicating money to studies showing the economic benefits of infill to local governments (I know the Infill Builders have discussed such a proposal but can’t seem to find the funds) and to making the data-filled case that “TIF for TOD” (i.e. redevelopment in infill areas only) is the right move for local governments and the state. Other critical policy measures include differential impact fees (i.e. higher fees on sprawl) and lowering parking requirements (AB 710). Those two measures alone could do more in one year for smart growth than SB 375 will probably do in a decade.

  4. I’m all in favor of taking the long view of major policy reforms (i.e. comparing health care reform to the first, weak version of social security). But I don’t see it happening with SB 375 unless one critical and massive reform occurs, and that is the complete overhaul of how MPOs are structured and empowered. In short, California would have to move to a true system of regional governance, with directly elected regional governors that trump local authority on land use and transit. Otherwise, we’re still left with the same dynamic: local governments hold all the cards. And if anything, the economic downturn has masked the weakness of SB 375: new sprawl is dead in this market, and the MPOs can meet their SB 375 targets pretty easily with so many people out of work and not driving.

    In any event, I don’t see transit as a big obstacle that SB 375 can adequately address: a significant portion (if not most) transit dollars actually flow to and from the counties, not the MPOs. SB 375 has no power over that money. And there are other, non-SB 375 ways of bolstering transit spending (we have a white paper on the subject with many proposals, if you’re interested). Plus, you can reduce VMTs and GHGs by building right even without transit. Building smart neighborhoods, with walkability to services and jobs, can cut down VMT significantly.

    My two-pager on where the dollars should go would start with the state redirecting money from SB 375 consultants to bolstering programs like the Strategic Growth Council, which provides grants for local governments doing sustainability plans. The money could also fund an OPR “swat team” of planners to help local governments redo their plans. Philanthropists, meanwhile, should be dedicating money to studies showing the economic benefits of infill to local governments (I know the Infill Builders have discussed such a proposal but can’t seem to find the funds) and to making the data-filled case that “TIF for TOD” (i.e. redevelopment in infill areas only) is the right move for local governments and the state. Other critical policy measures include differential impact fees (i.e. higher fees on sprawl) and lowering parking requirements (AB 710). Those two measures alone could do more in one year for smart growth than SB 375 will probably do in a decade.

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About Ethan

Ethan Elkind

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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