Limiting Sprawl’s Economic and Resource Toll: California Law SB 375

Yesterday a special all-day confab in San Francisco hashed over the state and local impacts of California SB 375, the first statewide anti-sprawl measure in America, which was signed into law in September.

The law will be historic if it can hold its center.

Sprawl causes greater greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution than more compact urban or suburban development that is served by transit, walking and biking. 

Current research now points to sprawl as helping set the 2007 real estate meltdown into motion. The first foreclosure crisis occured when rapidly rising gas prices began to make long commutes more than people could afford in torid Sun Belt locations such as Phoenix, Las Vegas and California’s San Bernardino County.

A study released this week by my firm Common Current provides data that demonstrates how car-dependent mainly post ’50s suburbs have been hemmhoraging value, whereas central cities and suburbs served by good transit, walkability, bikeability and high telecommuting rates have held their value.

Senate Bill 375 will use carrots (permit expediting, special funding) and sticks (withholding federal transit funding) to make sure local government and developers build closer to existing or planned transit and take into account how much people will have to drive as a result of  proposed projects.

“Now we can do regional planning with teeth,” said Peter Calthorpe, the long-time Smart Growth planner and head of Calthorpe Associates. “We have to determine just how sharp those teeth are.”

 

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While the sprawled regions of the US host a disproportionate amount of residential foreclosures, these outer rings also demand a disproportate share of service- and oil-dependent infrastructure (asphalt alone went up more than 300% between September 2005 and September 2008), proving mighty costly to government. 

The anti-sprawl bill provides regional land use and transportation guidance for the state’s expansive and historic AB 32. Passed in 2006, AB 32 aims to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions 70 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2050. The California Air Resources Board is guiding the AB 32 policy body and enforcement with Goverernor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office, the CalTrans highway agency, and regional policy agencies.

SB 375 provides the state a new trowel for shaping the developed footprint of the Golden State’s 163,000 square miles so it can limit carbon-hungry car-centric planning and construction. Besides encouraging infill, the intent is to stymie easy development of exurban agricultural land, wildlife habitat and natural resources. 

“SB 375 demonstrates we can get big complicated things done…in transportation, land use and environmental protection,” said the bill’s chief sponsor, California Senate President Darrell Steinberg in a video. “Together we have provided the template for Congress and other states.” 

Senator-elect Mark Leno was present in the flesh, and he laid out how sprawl–non-dense, unconnected, auto-dependent exurban or suburban development–was a form of development that has seen its day. “How we plan and construct the community of tomorrow will literally determine our future.

Backed by the California Building Industry, The California Alliance for Jobs, many regional governmental and transit organizations, SB 375 contains designations for market-rate and affordable housing near transit, but not jobs near transit. This was a concern for some, as was how to garner basic program funding with decreased federal highway funding and a state budget meltdown.

Joked Steinberg, “I have 28 billion good reasons why I’m not in San Francisco,” his video image said, referring to budget deficit meetings with the Governor.

Meanwhile, one member of the California Legislature called 375 not a great leap but instead “baby steps.”  

“Baby steps?” I asked.

“Baby steps.”

 

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