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Whether It's Whitman or Brown, New Governor Likely to Push Land Use Reforms

It's been 20 years since California elected a governor with a strong interest in planning and development.  And next week's gubernatorial election appears to present a pretty significant choice in the state's approach to these issues.

Despite her occasional right-wing rhetoric, Meg Whitman is unlikely to bend in a radical direction. She may suspend AB 32 and focus on job creation, but she's likely to focus on green jobs. She's also likely to try to streamline the California Environmental Quality Act, though it's hard to know � with a Democratic legislature � how likely she is to succeed.

Meanwhile, Jerry Brown appears to be � well, he's still the Jerry Brown of 30 years ago, but leavened by the experience of being mayor of a gritty comeback city for eight years. Brown will also focus on green jobs. It's reasonable to expect him to be more aggressive on smart growth issues. And, like Whitman, he'll probably go after CEQA � but in a more targeted fashion focusing on infill development.

California's governors have always had a love-hate relationship with planning and development. On the one hand, all governors like cutting ribbons for both big infrastructure projects and big environmental restoration projects. And California has often been ahead of the curve on planning trends nationally. On the other hand, the state and its governors have been mostly resistant to coordinated state efforts to shape development around the state. Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, and Jerry Brown himself all tried to push a coordinated state agenda but most of these efforts have failed in the implementation.

Will this trend change? Let's begin with Whitman. No matter what her campaign rhetoric has been � and she has bounced around from the right to the center all year � she is almost certainly a moderate Republican in the Schwarzenegger mold. Her political mentor is Mitt Romney. Whitman worked for Romney's investment firm, Bain & Co., for eight years in the 1980s and she has maintained close ties to him. Like Whitman, Romney ran for governor as a moderate Republican in a liberal Democratic state. In his one term as governor of Massachusetts, Romney established an impressive record on planning and development issues. Among other things, he consolidated all planning-related functions in one state agency and later brokered the regional greenhouse gas emissions compact for the Northeastern states. However, Romney backed away from these accomplishments when he ran for president in 2008. Whitman has showed a similar ideological flexibility, running to the right in the Republican primary and back toward the center in the general assembly.

There's nothing in either her background or her campaign materials that suggest she has thought deeply about land use or growth policy. Most of her public statements on the topic have to do with CEQA � and even then her comments have focused on the role CEQA has played in slowing down industrial development, rather than its role in shaping communities.

In a widely distributed op-ed piece written in 2009, she called CEQA "jumble of ambiguous rules that require environmental analysis of projects ranging from a nuclear power plant to bike lanes." She specifically stated she was "not advocating gutting CEQA," but focused on the need to streamline it. As an example of CEQA's shortcomings, she pointed to the case of Chevron's proposed expansion of its Richmond refinery. Environmentalists sued on CEQA grounds and a Contra Costa County judge concluded that Chevron's project description was unclear about whether the expanded refinery would be able to process cruder oil. In her op-ed, Whitman claimed the refinery expansion would have lowered emissions. "Despite winning local environmental clearance, die-hard opponents used CEQA's loose framework to get a judge to halt the project, throwing more than 1,000 people out of work," Whitman wrote.

As far as I can tell, however, Whitman has never actually specified what kinds of CEQA reforms she would seek. But it is unlikely that Whitman will target CEQA reforms to infill development, as Brown might. Beyond that, she has called for a one-year moratorium on AB 32. But as I wrote in the last issue, it's unclera whether she could extend that to SB 375 and greenhouse gas emissions analysis in CEQA, both of which are protected by separate statutes.

Unlike Whitman, Brown has a long record as governor, mayor of Oakland, and attorney general that suggests what direction he will go in. Brown will probably devise a more formal planning and development plan for the state to follow while implementing climate change laws aggressively and seeking to streamline CEQA for infill development. He's also likely to tie everything he can to his green jobs economic agenda.

Back in the late 1970s, Brown produced California's first, and so far only, urban growth strategy. It seemed cutting-edge at the time, but said nothing that would surprise present-day smart-growthers: protect farmland and natural resources, focus on infill development, and when greenfield development does occur make sure that it's compact. Typical of the regulation-rich '70s, Brown aggressively pursued air and water quality regulation; it's worth noting that Mary Nichols, Schwarzenegger's Air Resources Board chair who's been pretty aggressive on AB 32 and SB 375, took her first turn at that job working for Jerry Brown.

Twenty years later, Brown found himself mayor of a city desperately in need of new investment in old neighborhoods. Frustrated that CEQA permitted in-town residents to use environmental analysis to squawk about traffic, Brown pushed a bill through the legislature that streamlined CEQA review for infill projects � but just for Oakland.

Later, as attorney general, Brown pushed the climate change agenda on local governments and their CEQA analysis with his lawsuit against San Bernardino County, saying that AB 32 required analysis of greenhouse gas emissions. The legal settlement required the County to examine GHGs in both its land use policies and its county operations and set the standard for incorporating climate change into general plans and CEQA analyses.

Whitman is likely to push for general CEQA reform. But she's behind in the polls and would face a Democratic legislature influenced by environmentalists and by unions that sometimes use CEQA to block corporations they don't like.

Brown, on the other hand, is likely to use CEQA and other tools at his disposal � such as AB 857, the never-implemented 2002 law that requires state agencies to follow smart growth principles � to encourage growth in infill areas and discourage growth in greenfield areas. Plus he's likely to select an ARB chair who pushes hard on SB 375 implementation. He's ahead in the polls and will have a Democratic legislature with him � so the Brown agenda is much more likely to move forward. 

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