Saturday, January 10, 2009

Guidelines Without Guidance

The Governor's Office of Planning and Research (OPR), the division of government charged with administering the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), has released draft "guidelines" instructing state agencies how to evaluate the impact of projects they approve or undertake on Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG). Anyone who was hoping for real help from OPR in how to tackle this difficult issue must be very disappointed.

In 2007, the Legislature and the Governor enacted SB 97, a statute that authorized OPR to issue these CEQA guidelines relating to GHG emissions. The rationale for adopting the law was that agencies needed some direction in how to deal with GHG and climate change in their CEQA environmental review process. After the passage of AB 32, it became clear that GHG emissions would be an important part of the environmental review of nearly every major project in California. But figuring out when a project would have a "significant" impact on the state's total GHG emissions, or on climate change in general, was no easy task. The Legislature therefore asked OPR to develop guidelines that would specifically address how GHG emissions and climate change should be addressed in CEQA documents.

OPR has apparently decided to take a milquetoast approach to meeting their mandate to provide agencies with guidance on how to address the GHG issue. The draft guidelines read like a document drafted by lawyers rather than scientists who might actually have something interesting to say about methods for estimating GHG emissions and their significance, in spite of the fact that OPR claims they consulted with a variety of experts to develop the guidelines. The draft guidelines do little more than apply existing CEQA statutes and case law to the GHG issue. Of course, that's exactly what every lead agency and court in the state would be doing even if OPR didn't undertake this task, so it doesn't appear that they're contributing much of substance.

OPR could have taken their mandate in SB 97 to devise methods of mitigating GHGs and related impacts more seriously. Public Resources Code section 21083.05 (enacted as part of SB 97) gave them a pretty broad mandate, had they chosen to use it. Instead, they took a very conservative approach that hewed closely to the language of existing statutes and regulations, and they punted the really hard, really technical question (how to determine a proper standard of significance) to CARB. Maybe OPR didn't feel up to the task.

Draft section 15064.4(a) lists criteria that a lead agency should consider when determining the significance of a projet. It expressly mentions the State's overall AB 32 objectives, which are focused on 2020 as an end date. It doesn't mention the Governor's own Executive Order S-3-05, which requires even more draconian reductions by 2050. Nor does it make any mention of the regional GHG reduction targets that CARB will be devising under SB 375, adopted last year. Those regional targets will certainly be relevant to transportation and land use planning projects (general plans, Regional Transportation Plans, etc.), even if they are not applicable to all projects subject to CEQA. It strikes me as curious that these other targets/objectives are not even mentioned. It would have been fairly easy to draft some short, pithy language to include in 15064.4 that could have really added some backbone to CARB's regional GHG targets in particular. As it stands, nearly every project or plan in the state could arguably said to have a minimal effect on the state's ability to meet its AB 32 goals in general. And of course that's exactly what every lead agency will claim.

I also think it would have been prudent of OPR to state that quantification of a project's GHG contribution, as opposed to a "qualitative" description of it, is the preferred method whenever possible. Draft section 15064.4(b) gives the agencies way too much wiggle room. It's true, as the OPR spokesperson said to you, that quantification is sometimes difficult, and CEQA generally gives lead agencies a lot of latitude in how they approach the environmental analysis. But in this case, we're talking about a very specific kind of impact that lends itself to quantification. We're not talking about a visual impact or some other fuzzy type of environmental impact.

Estimating project-related air pollution is hardly a new scientific endeavor. There are models that are quite effective in quantifying the emissions contributions of even complex projects like long-term land use plans. A knowledgable transportation modeler assures me that CARB has computer models, available to any lead agency, that can help estimate project GHG emissions related to increases in traffic. There is also ample available sector-specific data, thanks to the state's GHG inventory, that could be used by modelers. The notion that agencies might be forced to rely on "qualitative" methods of estimating project impacts just doesn't hold water, given the state of computer modeling technology and the ocean of data available to planners.

By passing legislation like AB 32 and SB 97, the Legislature and the Governor put California on the leading edge of the struggle to come to terms with climate change in the United States. But ultimately, the implementation of the lofty goals of these statutes falls to state agencies like OPR and CARB. The success or failure of California's GHG regulation efforts depends on the political courage of the staff and political appointees who will work out the details of how the State will get a grip on its GHG problem. The GHG-related CEQA Guidlines proposed by OPR are not an indication that the agency has the courage to realize the State's lofty ambitions.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Phoenix, Portland, and the Street Hierarchy

The latest edition of the High Country News just arrived in my inbox. They've published a nice piece on the experience and politics of walking in Phoenix compared to Portland. The piece is available online, but you have to subscribe to HCN to access the full text.

The major reason why people don't walk in Phoenix, according to the article, is a principle of urban design and land use known as "street hierarchy." Popularized in the U.S. in the 1960s, the idea was to segregate high-speed through traffic from residential areas by locating houses in a nest of meandering side streets while constructing fast throughways for nonlocal traffic. While this may sound rational, the effect is to increase the distance from residences to urban amenities, even when the houses and amenities are relatively closely located as the crow flies. The result: no one walks anywhere unless they absolutely have to.

Those who attended ECOS' last board meeting heard mayoral candidate Kevin Johnson say again that he sees Phoenix as a model of what Sacramento could become. To be fair, he wasn't citing Phoenix as a shining example of pedestrian-friendly planning. He seemed to be mostly enchanted with its successful downtown redevelopment. Still, when urban design so directly affects the transportation and lifestyle choices that a city's residents make, you have to why anyone would point to Phoenix as a successful model of anything!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Park(ing) Day

Looking for a little engaged interactive theater in your life? Check out two "PARKing day" events being organized in Sacramento. The idea is to (temporarily) convert parking spaces into, well, park spaces to illustrate the potential for increasing usable, green space in urban areas by reducing our reliance on automobiles and the space they demand.

Sous les pav├ęs, la plage!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Sacramento Valley: California's Great Exception?

The Sacramento River Watershed Program has released a fascinating online report on suburban sprawl and the demise of agriculture in the Sacramento Valley. It appears to be a work in progress, and the "best management practices" identified for governments to cope with sprawl are nothing new. But there is plenty of interesting information and analysis packed into the presentation. The GIS layer maps that accompany the text are especially noteworthy.

One of the more interesting observations related to the suburbanization and exurbanization of the Sacramento Valley concerns the availability of water. In most of the state, the availability of water is one of the principal checks on unrestrained sprawl. Not so in the Sacramento Valley, according to the authors:

Below the Delta and the federal and state pumping plants, water is the principal limiting factor for exurban sprawl. This is not the case for the Sacramento Valley and much of the Sierra foothills in the Sacramento Watershed. The groundwater basin in the Sacramento Valley recharges readily from the normally abundant rainfall in Northern California. In only a few areas has groundwater depletion become problematic, like in eastern Sacramento County where urban and medium density suburbs were allowed to develop solely reliant on groundwater pumping. Very likely, all the areas zoned for low density rural residential development have sufficient groundwater supplies.

Abundant groundwater resources are the exception in California, where most development has depended on guarantees of imported water. Thus, when making predictions about the build-out of the Sacramento Watershed, it is not prudent to look at the patterns from Southern California where local water supplies were the limiting factor, or the Bay Area, where confined geography have restricted exurban rural residential growth. Other areas of the nation may provide more accurate models for the potential of exurban build-out in the Sacramento Watershed.

Groundwater-fed development will also differ from development in regions that rely on surface water (including state or federal project water) in another important aspect. While surface water diversions are highly regulated and governed by a complex system of water rights and contractual obligations, comprehensive regulation of groundwater use in California is much less developed. Where the state plays an active role in overseeing the use of the state's rivers, streams, and reservoirs, the regulation of groundwater extraction is mostly a local matter. The jurisdictions charged with regulating groundwater uses are also those most directly embroiled in local disputes about land use and development. The state has little direct power to ensure the sustainable use of groundwater resources.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Land Use and Climate Change

The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that Darrell Steinberg may have found a way to include climate change impacts in regional government transportation and land use plans under Senate Bill 375. Something the ARB dramatically failed to do with their AB 32 Scoping Plan:

Fortunately, the Air Resources Board may be about to get strong guidance from the Legislature. State Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has done a remarkable behind-the-scenes job of building support for legislation (SB375) that would require the impact on greenhouse gas emissions to be included in regional housing and transportation plans. It also would provide regulatory relief for residential and mixed-use projects that optimize available public transit.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Zinfandel Shuttle!

Today's Sacramento Bee has some encouraging news in this era of baffling transit cutbacks. The City of Sacramento and RT are teaming up to provide shuttle service to connect neighborhoods south of Highway 50 with the Zinfandel light rail stop! The story appears here.

Kudos to both the City and RT for implementing this program. I hope we'll see more of the same in coming years.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Healthy Spaces

Here, courtesy of MSNBC, is another testament to the intimate link between good urban planning and public health... and another reason to leave your car at home if you can:

A new study found that the year your neighborhood was built may be just as important as diet and exercise for shedding pounds. Those who live in neighborhoods built before 1950 are trimmer than their counterparts who reside in more modern communities, the study reported.

“The older neighborhoods had a reduced level of obesity because they were generally built with the pedestrian in mind and not cars,” said Ken Smith, a co-author of the study and professor in the department of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah. “This means they have trees, sidewalks and offer a pleasant environment in which to walk.”