Sustainable Communities: How Climate Change is Impacting California's Local and Regional Planning

09.25.2013

Local and regional planning in California is profoundly changing due to our state’s climate change laws. Nation-leading mandates for deep cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are becoming a driving force in community planning across the state, generating the need for multidisciplinary expertise in transportation, land use, resource management, GHG emissions accounting, climate change policy, and CEQA. To meet the GHG target established by AB 32 (the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006), significant reductions are needed across all sectors of the California economy by the year 2020, and this in turn is impacting how local and regional governments are writing and integrating long-range planning documents, including General Plans, Climate Action Plans, and Housing Elements. Directly and indirectly, climate change is shaping development patterns and affecting how scarce government resources are being distributed. 
 
A central tenet of California’s climate protection strategy is that economic growth and climate protection are compatible goals. The AB 32 Scoping Plan relies on clean energy, end use efficiencies and clean vehicle standards to lower the state’s emissions, outlining a mix of incentives and programs designed to smooth California’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Since AB 32 does not directly address transportation emissions (approximately 40% of total GHGs in California), California legislature passed a complementary bill in 2008 known as SB 375 (the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act), targeting GHG emissions from passenger vehicles. Taken together, AB 32 and SB 375 are intended to drive an economic transformation that will change how Californians live, work, and play in the not-so-distant future. The state’s ambitious GHG reduction goals are challenging planners, policy makers, residents and all sectors of the economy to seek common ground, embrace change, and provide leadership to the rest of the country and the world.
 
A General Plan provides the foundation for a local government to grow and prosper. Since climate change (and the need to reduce GHGs) is expected to have long-term impacts on the economic, political, and social well-being of our communities, the General Plan provides a critical platform for outlining a community’s vision, policies and strategies for dealing with those impacts. By their nature, General Plans have a long-term perspective on future needs and conditions. Now, climate change impacts and GHG reduction mandates are part of those future conditions, making the General Plan a natural foundation for local government climate planning. But even the most visionary General Plan cannot mitigate climate change on its own. It relies on several supporting efforts, that when taken in concert with the General Plan, provide the full complement of planning documents needed to reduce GHG emissions and prepare for climate change.
 
Over the past few years, Climate Action Plans have generally evolved from standalone aspirational documents that address the global imperative to reduce GHGs, into functional documents that integrate closely with a community’s General Plan and provide rigor around local program implementation and GHG emissions tracking. Typically, the primary goal of a Climate Action Plan is to accommodate local growth while reducing GHG emissions – no small task in areas that are growing rapidly or have a heavy dependence on the automobile. As communities grow, the inevitable rise in GHG emissions from new development and added vehicles must be offset through mitigation measures that target all sectors of the economy. Most public sector clients (cities, counties, or regional government entities) need a Climate Action Plan that provides clarity to developers and local planning departments as to what constitutes acceptable future development from a GHG emissions standpoint. If a Climate Action Plan can demonstrate with reasonable certainty that a city will achieve community-wide GHG reductions consistent with AB 32, a checklist approach can provide developers a means to demonstrate consistency with the Plan, and thereby circumvent GHG analysis with respect to CEQA, per the streamlining provisions of CEQA Guidelines §15183.5. On the other hand, if a Climate Action Plan is more aspirational than prescriptive, a “developer checklist” approach may not be feasible or stand up to legal challenge. In such cases, the Climate Action Plan can still be a highly functional document for setting development expectations, positioning a city for funding future sustainability projects, or merely setting a community on a more sustainable development path. 
 
SB 375 establishes regional transportation-related reduction targets for the 18 Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) in California, and ties transportation funding to each region’s ability to meet those targets. SB 375 encourages cities and regions to be smarter about connecting where people live and where they work, to build denser and more efficient buildings, to promote public transit and mobility options, and to reduce commuting and vehicle miles, thereby reducing GHG emissions. Each of California’s MPOs is developing a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) for meeting its GHG target and incorporating it into their Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). The SCS must be consistent with current planning assumptions as included in local general plans and elsewhere (a Federal requirement in distributing transportation funds), and must be in sync with the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). The regional SCS does not supersede local general plans but there are CEQA streamlining provisions in SB 375 that encourage consistency with the RHNA and with land use policies in the RTP. 
 
MTC and the ABAG Executive Board recently adopted Plan Bay Area, the SCS for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area – a region that is expected to grow by 2.1 million people by 2040. The plan seeks to channel 80 percent of the Bay Area's housing growth and 66 percent of its job growth into "priority development areas," or PDAs. These PDAs are typically located along existing traffic corridors, near mass transit, jobs, shopping and other services that have been identified and approved by local cities or counties for future growth. Local jurisdictions that approve PDAs and other means of establishing transit-oriented development (TOD) will have better access to grant money. In fact, the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MTC) recently established the OneBayArea Grant Program to better align federal transportation funding with SB 375 and Plan Bay Area. Over the next four years, $320 million in funding will support transportation investments in PDAs, reward jurisdictions that accept housing allocations through the RHNA process and locate affordable housing near transit, and invest in bicycle and pedestrian improvements and other projects that support implementation of Plan Bay Area. To help move these types of projects forward, Bay Area local governments are laying the groundwork with their General Plans and Climate Action Plans.
 
An important intersection of state GHG policy and local planning is presented in Housing Element updates, which are now informed by how SB 375 is implemented at the local level.  SB 375 encourages jurisdictions to provide more affordable housing in their general plan housing elements, and to locate that housing in close proximity to transit. The law requires local governments to complete their transportation and housing planning on parallel eight-year schedules, sets a firm time table on required rezoning to meet housing needs, and mandates that RHNA allocation numbers conform to the region’s SCS. Reducing housing isn’t how you meet reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions; rather increasing the supply of housing in close proximity to transit is how you meet established reduction targets.
 
Over the past year, ESA has prepared more than a dozen Housing Elements for cities in Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) region. SCAG is home to more than 18 million residents in a region encompassing 38,000 square miles including 6 counties and 191 cities. Like most of California, the SCAG region has been undergoing major demographic and economic transformations over the past 30 years. For example, the share of the Hispanic population increased from 24 percent in 1980 to almost 50 percent in 2010. During the same period, the share of manufacturing jobs declined from 25 percent to less than 10 percent. 
 
Opportunities are emerging for more sustainable community planning due to these shifting demographics and housing preferences that are favoring more compact urban development. In many areas, an aging population coupled with a decrease in households with children is shifting housing demand toward multi-family, town house and small lot detached units. By 2035, there is likely to be less demand for sprawling large-lot single family units. This trend is reflected in the Highway 395 Multi-jurisdictional Corridor Study for Southwest Riverside County that ESA recently managed and which won a 2013 SCAG Compass Blueprint award for Prosperity and Livability. In response to the communities’ vision, the Study identified seven catalytic sites along the 16-mile transit corridor that are ripe for high density mixed-use development and focused on implementation mechanisms (i.e., zoning tools, financing, etc.) to facilitate development of these sites. 
 
Another opportunity is presented by emerging regional transit infrastructure, particularly the rail transit system in Southern California. The SCAG region has a fixed-guideway transit system that is both new and underutilized relative to the Bay Area. Since 1990, the region has built a skeleton of a regional system currently with 460+ miles and 125+ stations and an annual ridership of approximately 100 million. In addition, many stations have little or no adjacent development. The current regional system will undergo major expansions within the next 25 years including notably $40 billion worth of Measure R Projects in Los Angeles County, which will be substantially accelerated under the aggressive 30/10 proposal. This expansion will also be augmented by the Southern California portion of the planned state high speed rail system. The rapid expansion of the rail transit network in the SCAG region provides planners with an opportunity to plan for future development in and around these station areas. ESA prepared the APA award-winning Station Square Transit Village Specific Plan, which proposes an innovative 25-acre TOD development integrating the future extension of the Metro Gold Line with a mix of uses ranging from retail shops and restaurants, to office space and upscale multifamily housing. The overall concept is focused on the inclusion of a large central open space area, a linear park, paseos, and pocket parks to provide active connectivity for residents and visitors between on-site uses and the future Gold Line station. This project was seen by the City of Monrovia as an opportunity to revitalize an underutilized industrial area and connect the City into a regional light rail network.
 
There is a resulting need to integrate affordable housing into future transit-oriented communities. Currently, a significant portion of residents in the transit corridors belongs to low-income households who are dependent on public transit. Preserving existing affordable housing and increasing the future supply are important policy objectives that we are integrating into our housing element work. These objectives underpin the success of the emerging regional transit system and provide lucrative and sustainable strategies to reduce GHG emissions.
 
SB 375 is a powerful tool, not only to reduce GHG emissions, but to ensure climate change mitigation is thoughtfully integrated with local and regional planning efforts. If SB 375 is implemented correctly, there is a real potential for positive change. Our Sustainable Communities group is excited to be a part of this positive momentum by assisting California jurisdictions in implementing land use, transportation, affordable housing and sustainability strategies that successfully address the requirements of AB 32 and SB 375.
 
ESA has completed Climate Action Plans or Energy Action Plans for more than a dozen California communities, and our staff is assisting Western Riverside Council of Governments (WRCOG) with a regional climate action plan and the City of Hughson/Stanislaus County with a Model Climate Action Plan. In addition, ESA is currently working on General Plan updates that incorporate AB 32, SB 375, and climate change adaptation. We also wrote several sections of the recently adopted Plan Bay Area EIR, and we have completed more than a dozen Housing Elements in the current RHNA cycle.
 
For more information contact Jeff Caton, ESA's Sustainable Communities Director at jcaton [at] esassoc [dot] com or Alexa Washburn, Principal Associate at awashburn [at] esassoc [dot] com or by calling 415.896.5900.