How is California’s Planning Shakeup Shaking Out?

California is much the same, and yet entirely different, six years after it enacted the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008, or SB 375.

“The results of this California experiment are only going to be known over time because land-use and transportation decisions, including the decisions people make about where to live and work, don’t change overnight,” says Richard Lyon, senior vice president of public policy at the California Building Industry Association in Sacramento, which supported the bill. “We have to go through at least one round of planning, each of which takes eight years, before we’ll be able to get data about how this is going to change decisions and activities in the real world.”

Yet the ground has shifted in ways that aren’t easily measured. “It’s been a game changer in terms of how planning for both land use and transportation has been accomplished,” contends Garth Hopkins, chief of the office of regional planning for the California Department of Transportation in Sacramento.

Challenges remain in the implementation of SB 375, and the outlook is nearly impossible to predict. But many are heartened by early results.

The complexities of SB 375

SB 375 is fairly straightforward on its face. But its implementation is intertwined with other California laws that make it more intricate.

The law’s goal is to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions for cars and light trucks as required under the state’s 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, or AB 32. SB 375 requires the state’s metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs — which plan and allocate funds for transportation investments — to develop regional transportation plans, or RTPs, that include a sustainable communities strategy, or SCS, to help the region meet Green House Gas (GHG) emission targets. SB 375 also requires the California Air Resources Board to provide each MPO with an emission target for 2020 and 2035 and to update those targets every eight years.

The idea is to slash GHG emissions by developing more sustainable communities, and that’s achieved by yoking transportation planning with land-use planning in a way that’s typically not done. Transportation planning primarily occurs at state and regional levels, while land-use planning is governed by local officials. SB 375 forces the two groups to work more closely together.

The aims of SB 375 mirror national trends. “The law didn’t come out of thin air,” says Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. “It’s responsive to trends already well along in both the market and the policy and regulatory structure of our state and local governments. I’d describe those as providing more diverse housing options and more diverse transportation options. The law was intended to nudge that process along.”

Miriam Chion, planning and research director for the Association of Bay Area Governments in Oakland, Calif., agrees. “The law addresses a trend that’s been unfolding in the region but more forcefully in the last 10 to 15 years,” she says. “People are making different choices about where they live and work. There’s a shift from the suburban home to the house or apartment close to coffee shops, restaurants, clubs and community centers. What we started doing as a regional transportation authority as SB 375 kicked in was to determine how we address these needs.”

To accelerate change, California also adopted a streamlined review process for infill development projects. “We included in SB 375 an incentive for builders to use land in a more efficient way,” says Lyon. “We have the California Environmental Quality Act, and every project has to go through CEQA review. But if you’re building in accordance with densities established by local communities — it’s not just for high-density development because a variety of different housing types are compliant with SB 375 — entitlement can be more streamlined. You should be able to move forward with a reduced amount of regulatory review.”

A whole lotta planning going on

Planning has been paramount in SB 375’s implementation. “California has 18 MPOs in the urbanized areas of the state,” says Hopkins. “Seven have adopted RTPs that incorporate SB 375.”

All 18 should have their RTP completed by early 2016, predicts Hopkins. However, the four largest regions are done. “Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and the Bay area, which comprise 88 percent of the state’s population, have completed their first round of plans,” says McKeever. “These RTPs get updated every four years, and two of the four regions are already working on their update, and we’re one of those. We’re not focusing on revisiting the main elements but on implementation and things we can do to re-arm ourselves to do it well.”

How did the MPOs do with their RTPs? “It’s not been an even implementation of SB 375,” says Ethan Elkind, author of “Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City,” who holds a joint appointment as associate director of the climate change and business program at the UCLA and UC Berkeley schools of law. “First out of the gate was San Diego, and it was a pretty weak plan. It was able to meet GHG targets because of the recession and because commuting has been down. They sort of complied with SB 375 but not really.”

After its RTP was released, the San Diego MPO (Sandag) was sued by environmental groups, a lawsuit later joined by the state’s attorney general. In December 2012, a trial judge found Sandag’s plan flawed, and the MPO is appealing.

“The lawsuit isn’t an SB 375 lawsuit,” explains McKeever. “Sandag has been sued under CEQA for many of its past RTPs. What I focus on is what’s actually in San Diego’s plan. They’re projecting that 80 to 85 percent of new housing construction over the next two to three decades will be attached housing of some kind. That’s a pretty big change from their last plan. They didn’t draw a lawsuit from the development industry. I don’t think there’s a lot of controversy in the private market that believes that’s where the market needs to go and is going.”

The Los Angeles and Bay area RTPs got better marks. “A lot of people feel those plans were good and had innovative things in them,” says Elkind. “Los Angeles shifted funds more to bike and pedestrian infrastructure. The Bay area plan also shifted dollars to those and created a grant program. It’s not a huge amount of money, but it did encourage local governments to apply for grant funding for pedestrian and bike projects.”

Coordination is growing

The joint planning envisioned under SB 375 is happening. “Historically, transportation and land-use planning were done in silos,” says Hopkins. “This integrates them to a level in California I haven’t seen before, and it’s a good thing. We’re seeing RTPs starting to look at how land use does have an impact on transportation. It requires them to work more closely with cities and counties.”

However, SB 375 clearly states that land-use authority remains at the city and county levels. “They’re the authorities, and the state doesn’t have much authority what gets built where,” Hopkins explains. “MPOs don’t have that authority, either. So they have to work with cities and counties on where growth would best take place, and it’s through more compact, infill development. MPOs have been pretty successful in looking at how that newer development can take place and seeing how transportation improvements can benefit it.”

Chion, whose organization adopted in July 2013 the region’s Plan Bay Area RTP, agrees SB 375 has prompted more coordination. “Until a few years ago, we didn’t have regional planners assigned to work with a specific city,” she explains. “We had a few people who’d coordinate across the board and answer questions as needed. Now we have five regional planners who have specific geographic assignments, and they work directly with planning directors to coordinate and support development of local plans linked to Plan Bay Area.”

Involving more officials in planning has brought a predicable outcome. “One challenge is sorting out the roles,” says Steve Sanders, program director for sustainability/ land use and healthy communities at the Institute for Local Government in Sacramento. “Regional agencies have had to step up and take more of a leadership role about regional development, and that’s been turf controlled by cities and counties. There’s been spark around that, and people are experimenting on how to do it.”

There also isn’t universal buy in. Many in the Los Angeles area “still think we’re a region of the 1960s and 1970s,” says Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments. “A lot of work will have to be done, but it’ll be easier to bring them along because of facts on the ground. Millennials and seniors are going to demand different housing and transportation. We know the future is going to be different. Can we convince our elected leaders? Our leadership’s still not there.”

There are also laggards in the Bay area. “Is everybody embarked on creating places that have a confluence of services near housing?” asks Chion. “Of course not. Some places will remain exactly as they were 10 and 20 years ago. However, the conversation about creating this vital urban neighborhood is a lot more intense than it was seven years ago.”

Places like Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose have been working on this transformation, says Chion. Others like Dublin, Walnut Creek and Mountain View have joined the discussion.

“If you go to Redwood City and smaller places like Vallejo and Petaluma, there’s a lot of thought and effort to shape this,” says Chion. “SB 375 has made a difference. It has facilitated coordination at the local and regional level. It’s a shift, and it’s creating a lot of commotion among developers, real estate folks and investors. There are a lot of adjustments at the local planning level. What SB 375 has done is given us a framework that allows us to organize the work we need to do with some clear orientation on how we proceed.”

Funding falters

Another monkey wrench in SB 375 implementation is funding. “The biggest challenge is that if you look at the list of findings in SB 375, it says local and regional governments will need a sustainable source of funding for implementation,” says Bill Higgins, director of the California Association of Councils of Governments in Sacramento. “Since the adoption of SB 375, we went through the economic crisis. Leaders had to make some dramatic budget changes in California, and that included eliminating one tax increment financing tool local governments had to support infill development. The investment so far hasn’t followed the plan on the state level.”

In 2010, California adopted the Sustainable Communities Planning Grant and Incentive Program to facilitate implementation of SB 375. But the need outpaces resources. In the Los Angeles region, SCAG’s grant program offered funding for cities with new ideas to link land use and transportation. “We were expecting 10 to 15 cities, and more than 50 wanted to participate,” says Ikhrata. “This is a small-scale example of people wanting to do it, and funding is an obstacle. If we provide resources for cities and counties, we’re going to move faster.”

And then there’s the muddled housing market. “You’re trying to do this at a time when public-sector revenues are declining, so how do you pay to figure out what to do and how to implement it?” asks Sanders. “And, oh yeah, you may also have heard we had a housing crash?”

Lyon agrees the housing market has affected SB 375 implementation. “We’ve had a severe housing crunch, and 2009 was the bottom of the market,” says Lyon. “We’ve seen some steady but modest growth in new construction since then. But there hasn’t been that volume of growth over that sustained period of time to evaluate how it’s working. For it to work, you have to have fuel in the engine. We haven’t had that for the last several years.”

Wins, losses and what to expect

In addition to coordination, Elkind sees other wins. “SB 375 syncs up the state’s affordable housing requirements with transportation planning,” he explains. “In the old days, there was no penalty for areas that didn’t want to comply with state law to meet affordable housing requirements. Now they’re not eligible for certain transportation dollars from the regional entity. So it creates a hook for local governments to zone more for affordable housing.”

“But I don’t see SB 375 as having a major effect on the ground,” concludes Elkind. “It’s really just an incentive-based planning exercise. If regions want to go with it, there are things they can do. But it doesn’t fundamentally change the fact that many of these decisions are under local control. It includes targets, but there’s no legal penalty if you don’t meet them.”

Sanders remains positive. “We’re changing a well-honed system and broadly expanding the set of folks involved in the decision-making process,” he says. “If you look super close, you’ll see lots of bumps in the road. There’s disagreement over things like whether there’s enough attention to social equity or too much to environmental protection. But if you step back and see we’re trying to shift a very established set of relationships and processes, it’s doing about as well as can be expected.”

What will be the signs in, say, 10 years, that SB 375 is working? McKeever will look for a strong move toward more multifamily development, both rental and owner-occupied, in the range of 20 to 25 units, rather than 5, per acre; transportation options that go beyond traditional highway capacity, with new freeways created as tollways along with the ability to carry more high-capacity vehicles like buses; new versions of rail; and money spent to make local streets higher-quality places more attractive to development and safer for cyclists and pedestrians rather than easier for motorists to sail through.

Ikhrata considers the goals of SB 375 “a great mission,” and he’s asked about it often when he travels to meetings of groups like the National Association of Regional Councils. “They want to know about our experience and how they can also be effective,” he says. “Other regions are doing this even though requirements aren’t formalized in a law, from cities like Chicago and Cleveland to states like Oregon and Washington.

“Whether we like it or not, the future is different,” says Ikhrata. “One response is to ignore it until it’s here. Another is to plan for it. The kind of planning SB 375 embodies will become a national standard. You can’t sustain communities by continuing to develop beyond their boundaries and expecting you’ll have the resources to provide things like water, energy and schools. This is a national discussion we must have, and SB 375 has started that. Are there obstacles? Of course. No major change in the world ever happened without doubting and discussion. But we’re on the right path forward.”

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