Posted by: Patricia Salkin | October 24, 2008

New California Climate Change Law Ties To Land Use, Transportation and Housing

Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law SB 375, requiring, among other things, the creation of regional “preferred growth scenario” of land use and transportation improvements that provides for anticipated growth in jobs and housing, while meeting state-mandated goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  See what the Governor says about this measure.

Bill Fulton explains in his California Planning and Development Blog (excerpted):

The bill contains five important aspects that California planners should understand:

1. Creation of regional targets for greenhouse gas emissions reduction tied to land use.

2. A requirement that regional planning agencies create a plan to meet those targets, even if that plan is in conflict with local plans.

3. A requirement that regional transportation funding decisions be consistent with this new plan.

4. Tethering together regional transportation planning and housing efforts for the first time.

5. New CEQA exemptions and streamlining for projects that conform to the new regional plans, even if they conflict with local plans.

1. Regional Targets                     

Under the law, the California Air Resources Board has two years – until September 30, 2010 – to give each of California’s metropolitan planning organizations a greenhouse-gas emissions reduction target for cars and light trucks – but only through changes in the development pattern.

2. The Sustainable Communities Plan Requirement

Once the MPOs have received the regional targets in late 2010, they will be required to create a “Sustainable Communities Strategy” that lays out how the emissions reduction will be met. Technically, this strategy becomes part of the Regional Transportation Plan – an important point, because it tethers the sustainable strategy to federal transportation planning law.

3. Transportation Funding Consistency

The Regional Transportation Plan has to be internally consistent – meaning the action items and financing decisions called for in the RTP must be consistent with the Sustainable Communities Strategy. This means SB 375 is subject to the same major structural issue as the RTP itself: Ultimately, the decisions at the regional level are made by MPO board members, who are local elected officials. And, as we all know, it’s unlikely that elected officials sitting as regional planning board members will pull the trigger on each other.

In other words, SB 375 talks tough about tying state and federal transportation dollars to land use decisions, but the bill does not alter the current regional planning structure, which delegates decision-making authority to local officials sitting as MPO board members.


4. Connection to Regional Housing Needs Assessment

SB 375 also changes the state Housing Element law in important ways – and, for the first time, links regional planning efforts for transportation and housing. Under the bill, all transportation and housing planning processes are put on the same eight-year schedule – that is, the plans must be updated once every eight years. (There’s a penalty for jurisdictions that don’t meet the Housing Element schedule: They must prepare Housing Elements every four years instead.)

The law also strengthens the language on required rezonings: If a local jurisdiction must rezone property as a result of the Housing Element, it must do so within three years and it must include minimum density and development standards for the site.

Most important, however, is the fact that the RHNA allocation numbers must conform to the Sustainable Communities Strategy. This has important consequences for the RHNA process and Housing Element implementation. The regional planning agencies are required to provide local governments with a housing allocation representing their “fair share” of regional growth. But the Sustainable Communities Strategy is likely to concentrate future development around transit stops. The end result of the RHNA process in the future is likely to look something like what the Association of Bay Area Governments has recently done in this arena – cutting a deal among the local governments to allow more housing in transit-rich areas, and rearranging the RHNA numbers to accommodate that goal.


5. CEQA Exemptions and Streamlining

In terms of planning practice, the most powerful provisions of SB 375 have to do with CEQA Exemptions and Streamlining. Under the new law, certain types of development projects are exempt from CEQA – or qualify for streamlined review – if they conform to the Sustainable Communities Strategy. And these projects qualify for streamlined review even if they conflict with local plans. Of course, such projects can’t qualify for an exemption or streamlined review until a Sustainable Communities Strategy is adopted, which is likely about three years from now.

But the list of caveats is long, meaning the eventual impact of the CEQA provisions may not be as significant as you might think.

Two types of projects qualify for CEQA breaks under SB 375 – residential or mixed-use projects, and “transit priority projects”.

Under the law, a residential or mixed-use project that conforms to the Sustainable Community Strategy qualifies for CEQA streamlining. Specifically, the CEQA review does not have to cover growth-inducing impacts; and it does not have to cover either project-specific or cumulative impacts dealing with climate change.

More significant is the “transit priority projects.” These projects can qualify for either a full CEQA exemption or a streamlined environmental assessment if they meet certain criteria.

“Transit priority projects” are projects that meet the following criteria:

1. Contain at least 50% residential use
2. Have a minimum net density of 20 units per acre
3. Have a floor-area ratio for the commercial portion of the project at 0.75
4. Be located within ½ mile of either a rail stop, a ferry terminal, or a bus line with 15-minute headways.

Under the law, projects can qualify for a full CEQA exemption if:

• They are no bigger than 8 acres or 200 units
• They can be served by existing utilities
• They will not have a significant effect on historic resources
• Their buildings exceed energy efficiency standards
• They provide ANY of the following:
     – 5 acres of open space
     – 20% moderate income housing
     – 10% low income housing
     – 5% very low income housing.

Under the law, “transit priority projects” that don’t meet these criteria still qualify for a truncated environmental assessment similar to the truncated environmental assessment permitted for residential and mixed-use projects specified above.


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