Steven Nissen became acting director of the Governor's Office of Planning and Research in April 2000 and the appointment has since become permanent. Besides advising the governor and carrying out his interests, OPR provides assistance to local government on land use planning issues. The office is responsible for preparing CEQA Guidelines and General Plan Guidelines, and it operates the state clearinghouse for environmental impact reports.
Besides his role at OPR, Nissen serves as a governor's special assistant for innovation in government. Before joining the Davis administration, he was executive director of the State Bar for two years. Earlier, Nissen was a partner in the law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and served as executive director of Public Counsel, a large pro bono law office.
CP&DR: You freely admit that you're not a land use expert. So why are you at OPR?
Nissen: When I came here I think I was viewed by the governor as kind of a utility person, and indeed I continue to wear a number of different hats. I set up the efficiency in government office and for about 6 months I was his staff director. During that time, I was in charge of a number of interagency project teams that brought various agencies together.
I don't come here totally without a land use background, but admittedly I am not an expert. I did some real estate cases back when I was in private practice. … I think fundamentally there is a relationship between local jurisdictions and the state that is broken for a number of reasons. And one of the first things I want to do is establish healthy lines of communication.
CP&DR: How do you go about that?
Nissen: Yesterday, for example, we brought together representatives of local jurisdictions, the state and federal government to look at what together we can do on electricity consumption and load sharing and other things. Really for the first time we brought together these people to deal with what kind of contributions we can make. Those public agencies probably account for 5 to 6% of all peak consumption in the state, and we had never sat down and talked to each other. … At the end of the day, even though when we approach Stage 2 alerts and there is a statewide announcement, people feel it in their neighborhoods. There's a broken communication tree to locals and we're trying to fix that.
CP&DR: What are your goals for OPR?
Nissen: I'd like to see us help build a GIS system available to local jurisdictions with a goal that local jurisdictions use compatible GIS systems so that both the state and local jurisdictions can see what impacts land use decisions have statewide and regionally. I think it's an ambitious undertaking. But our land use planning will only be as good as the information we have.
We have started to beef up our group of planners. When I got to the Office of Planning and Research we had one planner. … We want to offer proactive assistance to local jurisdictions. We are not a regulator. We can be a facilitator. It puts us in a unique position in government.
We're also the "R" part — the research arm for the governor. We have a legislative function and we have statutory functions. … We also have a number of other charges that are not necessarily related to planning or to one another. Each year it seems like OPR picks up one or 2 more statutory duties, such as coordinating duties among agencies.
We want to incent regional planning efforts. The projected growth for the state in the next 20 years is the addition of at least 12 million people. We're all in this together. If we don't plan intelligently under the narrow confines of one local jurisdiction pitted against another, we're not going to accommodate the jobs and housing for those 12 million people, and maintain quality of life and public services we expect.
CP&DR: How do you get that collaboration?
Nissen: I'm hoping in the year to come we will have a number of comprehensive planning, or "smart planning," sessions so that we can sit down and find common ground. It won't be a dictate from this office. But what we are doing is not working. You are not going to get a groundswell of support to develop in a sprawling fashion.
CP&DR: Your office has sent letters to most cities and counties requesting that they file annual progress reports and update old general plans. Why is this a priority?
Nissen: It is the law, and we're not asking for blind adherence to the law. It's a law that made sense at the time of its passage and it continues to make sense today. You can't get good regional planning without good local planning. It really starts with the basic tenet that your general plans need to be updated. And you have to give it a level of priority comparable to figuring out how you're going to get your water tomorrow, and your sewer and your electricity. … It is the fundamental building block.
CP&DR: What do you do with the updates and status reports?
Nissen: Obviously, we have to be selective in our responses to them because we don't have a large enough staff to go through them with a fine toothed comb. The grand plan down the road is, much like the notion of the GIS data, to … overlay all of these general plans to ensure that the whole is truly the sum of the parts.
CP&DR: What did you hear from local planners?
Nissen: It was distressing that there was a significant negative reaction to asking locals to comply with the law. So we sent out a subsequent communication to offer assistance to jurisdictions that were out of compliance and to be as customer-friendly as possible. I've heard mostly positive comments. There's no doubt that the issue that leads every discussion is money. But once we get past that, there is interest on the part of locals in working regionally and with the state. We're all impacted when we are stuck in traffic for hours.
CP&DR: The OPR environmental goals and policies report is supposed to be updated every four years, but it has not been updated since 1978. Are you going to tackle that one?
Nissen: There is a commitment to produce an EGPR pursuant to our statutory requirement to do so. The statute requires such a report be produced every four years. The timing of ours will be dependent, among other factors, on availability of adequate staff to produce a useful report. I envision the report containing accessible data, indicators and measurements. Ideally, the report will also be in electronic form so that the data it contains will be updated as new information becomes available.
CP&DR: You're talking about facilitating regional cooperation and gathering a great deal of data in a usable way. Is that too much for a small office to bite off? Do you have a timeline for these projects?
Nissen: I don't think it's too much to bite off because it has to be done, and it's too dangerous for all of us not to do it. In terms of a timeline, look, we're all dealing with limited resources, OPR included. It is an ambitious project and OPR is the place to do it. But much of the timeline will be dictated by how committed cities and counties — and the associations that work with local jurisdictions, as well as the other stakeholders, environmentalists and developers — are to a well-planned state of California.
CP&DR: Where does private sector fit in?
Nissen: I think, as in everything, the private sector is crucial. For these smart planning concepts to be successful, they do have to pencil out. They have to be attractive to people who build homes. They have to make sense to lenders who provide the capital that makes projects possible.
CP&DR: You've mentioned that the Davis administration does not use the term "smart growth." But the administration seems to advocate many of the concepts often included in definitions of smart growth.
Nissen: In the language used in the budget, particularly in the local budget section, there is a recitation of principles for development that has become known as smart growth. But it has become a loaded term that may not be appropriate for California.
CP&DR Managing Editor Paul Shigley interviewed Steve Nissen in mid-December.