Wilson Team Maps Plan for Growing State : Government: Management council will stress ways of strengthening economy. But a wide-ranging program will need support at regional and local levels.
In a cluttered office kitty-cornered from the state Capitol, a hard-eyed, 39-year-old lawyer is planning California’s future.
As director of the state Office of Planning and Research, Richard Sybert’s most important assignment is to come up with recommendations to manage California’s explosive growth and improve the state’s business climate.
The proposals will lead to Gov. Pete Wilson’s growth plan, which Bill Livingstone, his press secretary, called a “top Administration issue for next year.”
To that end, Sybert and the other 14 members of the growth management council, which includes several members of Wilson’s Cabinet, have trooped around the state for the last two months. They have listened to hundreds of witnesses at a dozen hearings. They have also commissioned endless streams of reports and studies.
The message from the public hearings, Sybert said in an interview, is that “growth management is looming very large on everybody’s radar screen” and that “everybody is looking to the governor for leadership.”
He indicated that the council’s recommendations to the governor will stress growth management as a means of strengthening the California economy, instead of the usual proposals for limiting population or new housing units or trying to get people out of their automobiles and into mass transit.
Sybert, a Los Angeles attorney who handled environmental issues during Wilson’s 1990 gubernatorial campaign, said many of the state’s business leaders have come to see growth management, when presented as an economic issue, in a more positive light.
Once reluctant to see the state play a role, they now believe that traffic congestion, foul air, water shortages and other problems are hurting California’s competitive position and that only the state can take the strong corrective measures that are needed.
“There’s a sense that we are hemorrhaging jobs, especially in the manufacturing sector,” Sybert said. “People are concerned about the flight of jobs from California and the perception that our state is a hostile environment for business.”
Sybert said the public hearings made it clear that the lack of affordable housing near job sites “is a genuine crisis.”
“No employer is going to put up with a work force that is on the road for four hours a day,” he said, referring to such marathon commutes as those between Riverside and Orange counties and between the San Francisco Bay Area and the Central Valley.
"(A long commute) means loss of work time, family disruption; it’s driving people out of the state,” he added. “It came through loud and clear that something’s got to be done about it.”
It remains to be seen whether the general support that many business leaders have voiced for growth management can be translated into the kind of tough regional and statewide actions that are needed to solve the problem of the jobs-housing imbalance. For instance, will they support steps to build more multifamily units, such as apartments and townhouses, in neighborhoods of single-family residences?
Ray Remy, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, is doubtful.
“I sometimes tell our members to be sure they’re not looking in the mirror,” Remy said. “People are all for the idea of jobs being closer to housing, but when somebody passes around a petition banning multifamily dwellings in their neighborhood, they rush to sign it.”
Whatever growth management policies emerge, they are sure to conflict with the desires of some individuals and companies.
For example, many companies provide free or low-cost parking for employees, which means more people drive to work, further fouling the skies. Needed airports, dumps and jails are hard to locate because of residents’ complaints.
“When you’re dealing with growth management, there are many political interests on the table,” said Jane Pisano, dean of the School of Public Administration at USC. “Weaving your way through all of that is difficult business.”
Some critics think Sybert has confused growth management with economic development.
“Growth management will be difficult enough by itself, without getting into all these other areas,” said Peter Detwiler, consultant to the Senate Local Government Committee. “We need to keep our attention on the more traditional definition of growth management--land use, regional solutions to traffic and air quality problems, that kind of thing.”
Many believe that if the Wilson plan does not include a detailed land-use plan, carefully defining areas that can be developed and those that cannot, then it will hardly be a plan at all.
“We strongly believe that much of the San Francisco Bay region should be designated permanent open space, through the use of ‘urban limit lines’ or some other similar device,” said Angelo Siracusa, president of the Bay Area Council, which includes the region’s largest employers. “But the flip side of that is that the plan must find a way to make things happen where development is allowed.”
To others, the notion of banning commercial development in large areas of open space is anathema.
“I think there’s a lot of support for the idea of looking for regional solutions to problems like transportation and air quality,” said Kirk West, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, “but you get a real drop-off (of support) when you start talking about regional bodies that would override local control.”
To the frequently heard criticisms that regional government does not work, or that it would usurp the role of city and county governments, Sybert replied that regional government exists in California. He cited such agencies as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the Bay Area and South Coast Air Quality Management District.
“It’s more a question of better coordination and integration of what we’ve already got.”
“What we need,” he added, “is not a new level of government but some kind of new mechanism that will allow local governments to work together better.”
What kind of mechanism?
“That’s the tricky part,” said Douglas Wheeler, secretary of the state Resources Agency and a member of the governor’s growth management council. “That’s where it gets controversial.”
Legislation introduced by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) would establish strong regional planning agencies with authority to override local decisions. Studies by blue-ribbon groups such as Los Angeles 2000 and Bay Vision 2020 in the Bay Area also have recommended strong central planning.
But Sybert said another, less assertive approach might call for the adoption of statewide “performance standards,” which each region could meet in its own way.
Another key issue for the growth management council is whether the plan is to be voluntary or mandatory or some combination.
“My assumption is that some elements should be mandatory,” Wheeler said, “but that a combination of incentives and disincentives that are more voluntary can be used too.”
Cost is another problem. Effective growth management policies will involve more state spending, a hard sell when California is struggling to rebound from the recession.
The growth management council will make their recommendations to Wilson by the end of the year. The governor is expected to announce his growth management plan either in the State of the State address next January or in another major speech early next year. Then he will propose legislation to implement the plan.