First-in-the-nation statewide sprawl rule clears Calif. air board

California regulators yesterday voted for a tough anti-sprawl rule that seeks to trim greenhouse gas emissions throughout the state by setting regional restrictions for transportation and land use to be applied by urban planning agencies.

The rule, as adopted by the California Air Resources Board (ARB), directs the 18 metropolitan agencies in charge of planning in California to work emissions cuts into urban blueprints as required under a law passed by the California Legislature in 2008, S.B. 375.

The agency set the cuts under pressure from some construction companies, builders, San Joaquin Valley officials and development interests that wanted lighter targets to account for economic uncertainty and historically bad air pollution in the valley. But ARB officials said the first-of-its-kind program is crucial to help meet the carbon cuts outlined in the state's climate law, A.B. 32, through reduced vehicle miles traveled and a movement toward denser, more livable communities.

Seeking a compromise with those opposed, ARB chief Mary Nichols yesterday pushed through a final rule that calls for different percentage reductions in per capita emissions by the years 2020 and 2035 for different regions. It passed the air board unanimously.

The cuts are as follows:


  • In the San Diego region, 7 percent by 2020 and 13 percent by 2035.
  • In Sacramento, 7 percent and 16 percent.
  • In the Bay Area, including San Francisco and Oakland, 7 percent and 15 percent.
  • In Southern California, 8 percent and 13 percent.
  • In the heavily polluted San Joaquin Valley, 2 percent and 5 percent, with higher targets likely after 2012.

Planners will have to account for the targets in the decades ahead by building, say, more public transit than roads or developing more walkable cities. The idea is to influence where people live and play, and in the process curtail how much time they spend in their cars burning fossil fuels.

Enforcement will not occur through penalties but rather through an incentive-based system intended to reward cities that develop "Sustainable Communities Plans." Regions that meet the targets will see more federal funding and streamlined environmental review for development projects, according to a briefing memo on the plan.

'It is possible'

Among the changes the air board hopes will emerge from the rule are a shift of multi-unit housing to a given city's center, more carpool lanes, better transit and increased telecommuting. Nichols called the vote for approval a victory for those behind the 2008 law, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

"These proposed targets are ambitious, achievable and very good news for California communities," Nichols said during a board meeting in Sacramento.

Witnesses appeared during the meeting to both support and oppose the plan. Janet Abelson, mayor of El Cerrito, said the city had already adopted a 15 percent per capita reduction target for 2020 under a U.S. EPA grant that prodded the city to work with nearby Albany, San Pablo and Piedmont on a regional target.

Abelson said her region's "climate action plan" has already improved air quality and turned civic leaders toward favoring a more sustainable living environment. She added that improved public health and energy independence are among the program's side effects.

"I'm here to say it is possible to do it," she told the board. "We see it as providing real community benefits."

But Sean Hubbard, of the group Carpenters in Action, said the rules would hurt the construction industry by adding another layer of uncertainty at precisely the wrong time. Among the concerns is that the rule could lead to more litigation from those opposed to any development, which could make it harder to build and could undermine the industry.

"I hate to say we fear the change, but we do," he said, citing the economic downturn. "The simple idea of uncertainty is enough to kill projects at this point."

Others argued that the air board had inflated its estimates of population growth and expected increases in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) when setting its regional targets. Andrew Henderson, general counsel of the Building Industry Association of Southern California, said pinning population growth to 1.5 percent a year and VMT increases to 2.2 percent a year is a mistake that might lead to higher targets than are truly achievable.

"You need to be really careful with these numbers," he told the board. "They're way off."

Even so, the rule passed, to cheers from environmental and public health groups.

"California is one of the worst states in the country for air pollution," said Jane Warner, CEO of the American Lung Association, before the board. "This measure will make an impact on that."

Sullivan reported from San Francisco.

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