SACRAMENTO – An obscure state agency charged with planning for California’s growth is showing signs of renewed life after years of snoozing as the state added millions of new residents.
The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, which pioneered a California vision of city-centered development 20 years before the advent of “smart growth,” recently introduced its first land-use bill in nearly two decades.
The breakthrough prompted Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, head of the Senate Local Government Committee, to proclaim it “somewhat shocking, if not historic that OPR is the sponsor of this bill, that OPR is alive and OPR is doing something after 14, 15 years of not having much going on.”
Given a go-ahead by Gov. Gray Davis, the OPR bill proposes a model development guide by January 2004 encouraging more infill development, new growth near transit and a wider variety of housing options for 35 million Californians. In a state growing by 600,000 new residents a year amid severe housing shortages and some of the nation’s worst traffic and longest commutes, the OPR bill, SB1521, also proposes financial rewards to local governments that follow the model.
The agency, which began in 1970 under Gov. Ronald Reagan and reached its zenith under Gov. Jerry Brown, is also working on a legally required statewide planning vision. The last one dates to 1978, when California’s population was 22 million.
By law, OPR must do an updated growth plan — called an environmental goals and policy report — every four years.
Yet Brown’s was the last.
Though OPR long helped California’s urban and rural planners, Brown-like notions of topdown statewide planning languished under 16 years of Republican governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson.
Brown, now mayor of Oakland, says, “All the insights available in the early 1970s were totally forgotten in the 1980s and 1990s and that’s been a tragedy for California.”
Brown’s 1978 version of the required OPR growth plan, “An Urban Strategy for California,” promoted a vision of containing the suburban growth that has since exploded across the state. It called for filling in existing cities, renewing older neighborhoods and keeping necessary outward growth to the very edge of existing urban areas.
An executive order required state agencies to follow the “Urban Strategy,” but it’s long forgotten. And OPR never produced another plan.
Vivian Kahn, an Oakland planning consultant who worked in Brown’s OPR, says the long slumbers comes because “Republican administrations often tend to feel that the state should not be imposing that level of control.”
Indeed, Republican Sen. Bob Margett of Arcadia voted recently against OPR’s model growth bill in a committee hearing, saying, “It’s just too much of a heavy hand, in my opinion.”
City council members and county supervisors, who decide where to locate shopping centers and subdivisions, and frequently get campaign contributions from developers, are also wary of state intervention.
Yet as OPR cautiously treads back into statewide planning under Democrat Davis — Brown’s chief of staff during the 1970s — legislators from regions stressed by growth are also prodding the agency to wake up.
Among them, Democratic Assemblywoman Pat Wiggins, who chairs the Assembly Local Government Committee and the Legislature’s Smart Growth Caucus, complains, “We’re putting things on local government as far as planning, but the state’s basically a rudderless ship.”
Wiggins, a former Santa Rosa mayor, and others say state agencies that help conserve farmland, build highways and locate universities are working off uncoordinated visions of the state’s future. While OPR has multiple roles, one of its principal missions is to tell California where it’s heading and how to cope with it.
A Wiggins bill, AB857, would make OPR prepare such a 20-year growth vision for California by next summer.
Scott Farris, senior policy adviser with OPR, says the agency aims to present its first draft of a statewide growth report by January.
Sen. Bruce McPherson, R-Santa Cruz, is also pushing a bill, SB1808, requiring OPR to report yearly on how it’s implementing such a vision.
“I think we’re overdue, and this is trying to light a fire under the department and say, ’Come on, let’s get with it,”’ McPherson says.
To today’s legislative hand-wringing over OPR, Bill Press, its chief under Brown, says — in a nutshell — I told you so.
In the 1970s, Press, former host of CNN’s “Crossfire,” and now a political contributor to CNN, assembled a team of young planners, many of whom still influence how California and the nation grows. The team produced Brown’s “Urban Strategy” to contain what people now call sprawl.
“This many years later, I would argue it makes more sense than ever. It is more relevant and pressing today than it was in 1978,” argues Press.
“The fact is,” he says, “We’re still losing some of our best agricultural land. We’re still promoting urban sprawl in many areas. We’re still not filling in the important parcels inside existing cities or rebuilding and renovating urban areas.”
Two years ago, the failure of OPR to produce a statewide growth vision since 1978 raised alarms among state auditors. Audit teams, during a routine study on California wildlife habitat, recommended that OPR begin assuming its 30-year-old mission. Otherwise, the Bureau of Audits reported, “state entities have no clear central vision of goals and objectives to follow for the use of land.”
At the time, OPR’s interim director, Steve Nissen, agreed. Last September, he announced the agency’s attempt to comply by next January, despite having to start from scratch in many areas, staff shortages and time lost due to the state’s energy crisis.
Meanwhile, the agency’s model growth guide continues its path through the Senate. Torlakson, despite his initial shock, says of a revived OPR, “The governor has given a green light to be more proactive. This is positive news and long overdue.”
Indeed, inside his ornate committee room, having noted aloud the agency’s years of shortcomings, Torlakson turned to OPR’s newest interim chief Tal Finney and said, “We’re happy to see you here.”