Most Important Smart Growth Bill Ever

Some good news on the urbanism and climate change front: Schwarzenegger backed down from initial veto threats and signed SB 375, which, as the title of this post suggests, might actually be the most important smart growth bill in history.

Other states have done some work in this area, most notably Maryland under former Governor Parris Glendening, but never has a jurisdiction as large as California done it, and this bill is far bigger than Glendening’s initiaitves back in the 1990’s.

The bill is massive and complex, and since its key provisioins cross-reference existing legislation, it is difficult for the novice or even the grizzled veteran to understand. But its essential deal is that it gives local governments incentives, in the form of transportation dollars, to plan for more compact, mixed-use, low-VMT development. Developers who build projects that have substantial affordable housing near transit (either rail or well-established bus lines) get significant relief from California’s sometimes-draconian environmental review laws (and if their project is particularly green they can forego environmental review altogether). And affordable housing developers get tougher remedies against recalcitrant localities that refuse to plan for their fair share of projected housing demand.

Importantly, this smart growth bill is explicitly a climate change bill as well, because researchers have determined that there is no way that the state can meet its emissions goals under previous climate legislation unless land use is transformed as well.

The hero in all of this is the state Senate President Pro Tempore-elect Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who assembled an extraordinary coalition of environmentalists, developers, and housing advocates to get this done.

We’ll see how all of this works out: even with the bill’s complexity, there are still lots of questions about how it will be implemented. And we don’t whether the incentives and disincentives in the bill will be enough to change our auto-dependent land use patterns (which themselves are partially the artifact of decades of poor incentives, many of which still remain.). But with gasoline prices at more than $3/gallon to stay, the wind is at the bill’s back here.

Shameless plug: I’m happy to report that the Ziman Center for Real Estate at UCLA (where I am the associate director) and the newly-created Emmett Center for Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law School (where I am an affiliated faculty member), will sponsor a roundtable on the legislation on Friday, November 21st. This will be the most in-depth look at the most important land use legislation perhaps since zoning started 80 years ago. The event is open to the public, and if you are interested, let me know and I will get you on the right mailing list.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.