Governor’s model zoning plan worries growth establishment

By Jim Wasserman, Associated Press Writer
Monday April 15, 2002

Local municipalities, real estate and building industries say “smart growth” depends too much on state control over how cities grow 


SACRAMENTO – Alarming California’s pro-growth establishment, Gov. Gray Davis is pushing a bill that would give state government significant new power within two years over how and where its cities grow. 

The bill would produce a model California zoning ordinance by January 2004, and reward cities and counties that incorporate a new state vision of land-use planning. Supporters call it the governor’s most significant move toward so-called “smart growth,” and a step toward reassuming California’s national leadership role in growth management. 

But local municipalities, as well as the real estate and building industries, view the bill as a loss of local control, one that would force cities and counties to bow to a powerful state bureaucracy. 

It’s also the first major land-use initiative in years by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), California growth watchers say. 

To succeed, Davis will have to use all of his political capital to withstand the onslaught of opposition from builders and allies during an election year, said Bill Fulton, head of the Ventura-based Solimar Research Group. 

“I don’t see this bill being passed or successfully implemented unless Gov. Davis is willing to do that,” he says. 

While Davis studiously avoids the term “smart growth,” the advocates of the concept of more urban growth and less in suburbs are thrilled. 

“We’re very happy to see the governor entering this arena,” says Tim Frank, head of the Sierra Club’s national campaign against sprawl. “The smart growth movement has shown itself to be a mainstream movement with broad appeal, and I think the governor recognizes that.” 

The bill, SB1521 carried by Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, aims to write a model growth blueprint that promotes more development in existing cities, more buildings that mix housing, offices and shops, more development near transit lines and a bigger range of housing options. The result in the nation’s fastest-growing and most car-clogged state could be less growth spreading onto vacant land. 

It will have its first hearing in the Senate Local Government Committee on April 24. 

Because California is “one of the fastest growing states in the country,” Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio says, “it makes sense to meet demands for housing and preserve open space.” 

Scott Farris, spokesman for OPR, says the bill stems from numerous forums the agency held last year with local planning officials and others interested in development. 

While many states have model ordinances to guide how their cities and counties grow, California would be the first to link state goals to financial rewards, says American Planning Association senior researcher Stuart Meck. Local governments that implement the state’s ideas of good growth would have a much improved chance of landing state grants for highways, transit, sewage plants, libraries and park land. 

The California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank, part of the state’s Technology, Trade and Commerce Agency, already gives priority to infrastructure projects that help rebuild older neighborhoods and promote transit ridership. 

Maviglio acknowledges the opposition’s fear of losing control, saying, “There seems to be a sense it’s a mandate when it’s not. This is designed to encourage them to do it.” 

Such talk riles opponents, largely the state’s powerful growth-industry alliance. The California Association of Realtors contends that using state grants as zoning incentives puts local governments in a “hostage” situation. 

Because cities “are so desperate for money,” said League of California Cities legislative director Daniel Carrigg, municipalities will have to do the state’s bidding. 

“These competitive grant programs are really cutthroat right now,” Carrigg says. 

Carrigg and other opponents maintain that city council members and county supervisors are the best judges of how their regions grow. 

In California, local elected officials vote on where to locate shopping centers, decide the number of homes per acre in a subdivision and even the height of front-yard fences. They also craft 20-year “General Plans” that dictate whether a city will grow up or out, whether it will encourage apartments above stores, where to build schools and how much farmland it will put under pavement. 

In letters to Kuehl, their representatives state fears of making OPR a “superagency that micromanages local issues.” 

“OPR’s mission in statute is to provide localities with assistance and advice,” says Richard Lyon, senior legislative advocate for the California Building Industry Association. “It should not be in the business of micro-analyzing local development standards or zoning ordinances.” 

Opposing groups say the state’s control over housing gives them little confidence. Dictates from the state’s Housing and Community Development Department, telling cities and counties how much housing to build for 600,000 new California residents every year, have sowed fights, lawsuits and confusion. Legislation to address the issues is also bogged down in conflicts. 

Opponents hope, as the governor’s model zoning ordinance winds through the Legislature, to make it simply “advisory.” 

But Davis has history in his corner. States such as Maryland, Oregon and Washington have pushed topdown approaches to development. Oregon and Washington placed growth boundaries around their cities to force compact development and save farmland. Maryland refuses to pay for highways and sewers outside its designated urban growth areas. 

“California is a state in which there are really very few land-use directives that come from the state for local government,” says the APA’s Meck. The APA’s California chapter, consisting of 5,000 urban planners, citizens and government officials, is supporting the bill’s concept, calling it “an excellent first step.”