A smart plan for smart growth


Shorter commutes. Less sprawl. Cleaner air.

Denser housing closer to downtown near transportation hubs.

“Smart growth” it’s called.

California policy makers have been yakking about this -- dreaming about it -- for decades. But too many interests have been prospering from dumb growth or have merely been skittish of a future they can’t quite visualize.

Enter a tenacious policy wonk with roots in local government: state Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). He has just managed to finesse to the verge of legislative passage a visionary smart growth bill that, by its nature, also fights global warming. It has been a two-year struggle, fought mostly under the media radar while budget chaos crippled the Capitol.

It helps, of course, that Steinberg, 48, has been selected by Democrats to be the next Senate leader. He is carrying serious clout. An official Senate vote is expected today electing Steinberg as president pro tem when the next Legislature convenes in December.


A former city councilman and assemblyman, Steinberg is into substance, not sound bites. And his legislating style is a throwback that succeeds.

“It’s a gift anymore to have a legislator who can really dig into a complex issue and be able to mete out a fair deal -- the stuff that people used to do up here that make things work,” says Ed Manning, a lobbyist for the building industry, which supports the Steinberg bill after negotiating a compromise.

“When you look at the scope of the bill, it’s pretty significant.”

The measure (SB 375) links regional planning for housing and transportation with California’s new greenhouse gas reduction goal (AB 32) enacted in 2006. The goal is to reduce greenhouse emissions to the 1990 level by 2020. That’s a 30% cut from projected emissions.

“One issue everyone has been afraid to touch is land use,” Steinberg says. “Everyone understands about using alternative fuel. But land use has been the third rail. AB 32 changed the equation because now land use has to be part of the solution to global warming. You can’t meet our goal just with alternative fuels. You have to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled.

“If people are going to drive -- and they are going to drive -- we need to plan in ways to get them out of their cars faster. That means shrinking -- not the amount of housing, not economic development, not growth -- but shrinking the footprint on which that growth occurs.”

Steinberg wants it to occur within a smaller circle around downtown.

Basically the bill would work like this: Each metropolitan region would adopt a “sustainable community strategy” to encourage compact development. They’d mesh it with greenhouse emissions targets set by the California Air Resources Board, which is charged with commanding the state’s fight against global warming.

And this is the key part: Transportation projects that were part of the community plan would get first dibs on the annual $5 billion in transportation money disbursed by Sacramento. (Projects approved before 2010 would be funded under the current system.)

Another biggie: Residential home-builders would be granted relief from much of the environmental red tape for projects within the community plan.

Local governments also would be required to expedite zoning and allow the builders to actually build.

“We needed to create more certainty,” Manning says.

He adds that builders decided they’d rather help plan the strategy for the war on global warming than just wait for the state air board to act unilaterally.

Environmentalists had the same attitude.

“It’s a watershed moment for the environmental community,” Tom Adams, board president of the California League of Conservation Voters, told the Assembly Local Government Committee on Tuesday as the panel approved the bill. “We realized we had to encourage growth, but growth in the right location. Otherwise, we’d get growth anyway, but in the wrong location.”

Adams calls the measure “the most important land-use bill in California since enactment of the Coastal Act” three decades ago.

“Emissions from cars and light trucks are the largest single source of greenhouse gas in California,” he continues. “We will never be able to achieve our climate goals unless we locate housing closer to jobs. The number of miles that people drive is increasing almost twice as fast as the population growth.”

It’s an unusual coalition: environmentalists and home-builders.

Cities and counties also support the bill. They gain extended planning time for housing.

But Steinberg couldn’t reach deals with every interest, and there is still opposition from commercial property owners, the transportation lobby and manufacturers. They all want the same environmental streamlining deal that home-builders got.

“We’re moderately opposed,” says Jack Stewart, president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Assn.

Steinberg says the bill can be tweaked next year. Time has run out for this legislative session.

The bill is on the Assembly floor and, if passed as expected, must return to the Senate for approval of amendments. No Republican voted for the measure when it first passed the Senate last year before substantial amending. It requires only a simple majority vote.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t taken a position on the bill. But since global warming has become his pet issue, it’s hard to imagine him vetoing the measure. Anyway, it would be a lousy way to begin a relationship with the next Senate leader.

The governor can think about it this way: Los Angeles would probably be a lot more livable today if this law had been passed 50 years ago.