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Ken Alex Leads State Planning Efforts at OPR

The Governor's Office of Planning and Research occupies an unusual place in California planning. Even though planning is an intensely local function, part of OPR's mission is to convey Sacramento's planning agenda to the local level. At times when that agenda has been ill-defined, OPR has nearly withered. But now that Gov. Jerry Brown has articulated support for Senate Bill 375 and for a host of smart growth principals, OPR may regain prominence. 

Ken AlexThis task falls to attorney Ken Alex. Alex, who served under Brown in the attorney general's office, is Brown's senior policy advisor and director of the Office of Planning and Research, as well as chair of the Strategic Growth Council. In the attorney general's office, Alex specialized in environmental cases, and before that he led numerous settlement negotiations against power producers that collectively resulted in over $5 billion in settlements. As OPR director, however, Alex will see no such windfall. With a small staff and constrained budget, Alex spoke with CP&DR about his goals as OPR director and the future of California planning under the Brown administration. 

What are your and Governor Brown's goals for OPR? 

Some of the highest priorities for the governor are to promote the conversion to renewable energy and to think about it in local terms.  One way to think about that is distributed generation.  We are considering how to site not just rooftop solar, but also solar facilities that are more modest in size than some of the large-scale projects out in the desert. You might think about a 20 megawatt system that can go in fairly small areas. Ground-mounted tends to be cheaper than roof-mounted; they're easier to install and easier to take care of.  And there are a lot of possibilities for where they could be sited: on utility right of ways, on freeway right of ways, and along the California Aqueduct. OPR is trying to help local jurisdictions figure out where some locations might be and then to think about what sort of barriers might exist for those projects: How do we streamline permitting so that we are sensitive to environmental issues but don't slow down the project to the point of making it nearly impossible? 

As former governor and mayor of Oakland, infill development is something that Governor Brown has been interested in for decades. So we're thinking about what strategies can promote infill development and do it in a way that's good for urban areas and brings people back to downtown areas in ways that we've seen in places like Oakland. 

Then one of the things that OPR has some statutory obligation to do, but hasn't spent a lot of time doing, is looking at the state of the environment every four years or so. I'd like to do that in ways that think about different measures of the environment that may not be traditional, such as air quality and water quality. Those are important. But how is public health? How are we doing on crime? How are we doing on other measures of the broader environment? What is California going to look like as we look towards 50 million people in the state?  There's a lot of things that go into evaluating the state of the environment. 

What role does the Strategic Growth Council play in OPR's work? 

Right now the SGC is focused, in significant part, on doing its various grants. There are three rounds of grants: one set for urban greening and another set for planning and, in particular, for sustainable communities. The Strategic Growth Council has a very small staff.  It actually has one [executive officer], and she just hired a second staff member, and we're trying to get her a third staff person. But they really have very minimal capacity to do much beyond the grant process when the grants are in action. So the first priority is to receive the grant request applications and make decisions about them. 

What role can OPR play in implementing Senate Bill 375? 

Then SB 375 requires metropolitan planning organizations to evaluate and plan in a regional way, particularly for transit oriented development. We're trying to help the MPOs with some of that process on the planning side. More importantly, for me, is the question of how we get the local jurisdictions—which are not obligated to follow those plans—interested in meeting up with those plans and working in a regional way, which I think will help how we grow in California. 

One of the challenges that the metropolitan planning organizations have is to do modeling to evaluate what different strategies and scenarios mean and what are the impacts if they develop in certain ways as opposed to developing in other ways. We can help with the modeling. We can help with different scenario plans. We are trying to get the different MPOs to talk to each other, to coordinate, and to use the extraordinary amount of work that's been done in this area on transportation planning, on modeling, on design work on transportation-oriented development. 

SGC awards some highly coveted grants for local planning. What can cities expect from those grant programs? 

The criteria were put out to bid pretty much when I came into being chair of the SGC.  I think the criteria haven't changed much in the past year. Obviously on the Urban Greening Grants, they're supposed to be primarily urban, so they're areas of high density, and there are various possibilities for how communities can go about, not just planting trees, but also creating places that are going to be relevant to downtown areas and to communities that have very high densities. 

SGC, as I noted, has a limited staff. But the grants themselves are actually looked after by the Resources Agency and by the Department of Conservation. Looking after those grants and making sure that the money is used properly, appropriately, and effectively is quite relevant. We're going to be doing some auditing and ensuring that the money is being used properly. Oversight is always an important issue, but even more so given the current economic times. 

How does the potential demise of redevelopment affect OPR's work? 

That's a fair question, and I don't really have a good answer at the moment. We don't even know which bills are going to the governor's desk, and which he may or may not sign. And when the smoke clears, where are we going? I would expect that there will be something to replace the current system but what that's going to be, I don't know. It has a lot of potential impacts for everything that OPR is doing. Like you and your readers, I am very curious to see what happens next. 

Are these incredibly trying times to be in your position right now? 

At the outset it's very exciting. We have a half-dozen new staff people who are excited to be there and have many, many ideas. We have almost no budget. But that's OK.  We're interested in trying new ideas. What is difficult is that local governments in their planning departments have been decimated, so how do we help them without many resources ourselves? 

Some governors have embraced OPR, as Jerry Brown did in his first stint, others have not. How does Gov. Brown approach OPR this time? 

He was a big fan of OPR the first time around when he was governor. He understands that it has great potential to do good things. He is supportive of the idea of land use planning. He knows very intimately the issues that local jurisdictions face. I feel like we have a very supportive governor for what OPR is about, but the challenges we've identified are small staff and small budget. He has also made it clear that his government is going to run under a very slim budget and we have to live with that. That's life and we'll deal with it. 

How has your time in the attorney general's office influenced your approach to OPR's work? 

It's an interesting change from going from being an attorney and thinking first about litigation and how you use legal tools to being in a policy position. I think having some sense of how the laws are used, and sometimes misused, is a huge advantage.  In many conversations, I have a sense of the legal issues, and as I learn some more of the policy questions I can bring some of that knowledge to bear. 

It's very interesting to approach these problems and start thinking about, "OK, as a lawyer you might use the law in a particular set of ways." And now we have to think about what are the problems created by how the law is used? And are there ways to reform or modify or give some guidance to make things easier and better.   I actually am enjoying that very much. 

You have a unique perspective on CEQA having worked on some landmark CEQA cases in the Attorney General's office. How do you think the relationship between CEQA and greenhouse gas emissions is going to evolve?

What we found at the AG's office is that it was a new area some years ago. And it really needed to develop. The AG's office was very much a part of  that development. Sometimes the development occurs through litigation and negotiation. But OPR has some very interesting tools, like  technical advisories and guidelines and information letters, and I'm interested in seeing if we can use some of those tools as well. It's a positive development, and I think both tools are relevant. And I think working with local jurisdictions to figure out the challenges they have and to use OPR in a way that there's no threat of litigation--because we're not going to sue anybody--has some advantages. And I think sometimes the AG's approach has some advantages. 

Hopefully, there will be some ways to make progress on all fronts and come to the point where some of the very difficult questions raised by GHG emissions are less contentious and more sophisticated. 

How do you feel about the prospect of reforming CEQA? 

I think that CEQA has been perceived as a hindrance in certain instances. Whether that is objectively true in some ways doesn't matter, because perception is on some level, reality. I think it's fair and appropriate to evaluate what kind of changes may make sense. 

Is it just CEQA? I think it's fair to say that there are a lot of reasons why infill development is difficult. Some of them are straight economics. There are legal impediments. There are actions that can be taken under CEQA that can make development more difficult. So, fine, that's where we are, and I think that it's fair and appropriate to evaluate CEQA and see if it's time to make some changes.  

I know that the governor is interested in doing a very serious process to evaluate that.  And at OPR we are working on possibilities of thinking about infill CEQA streamlining. 

We're evaluating whether some sort of best practices approach might make some sense where projects that meet a set of criteria would then have a very streamlined environmental review. That's an area where I think there's a fair amount of promise to make some possible changes. So we're convening some discussions on that topic with a lot of interested folks from a lot of different perspectives: environmental, builders, chambers of commerce, etc. I'm hoping that we can make some proposals in the not-too-distant future. 

What's your approach to the age-old challenge of coordinating different governmental units in California? 

The very first thing that we are doing is to get a sense of what the various interfaces between government agencies and local governments are on urban issues. It's not always obvious. There's quite a few of them. What Gov. Brown has emphasized with his cabinet secretaries….sometimes the agency jurisdictions are relevant, and they certainly are for budget purposes, but, in his view, it's one government, and we need to work together. I think OPR is part of making that happen. I want to find where the interfaces are and I want to get these entities to talk together and coordinate and figure out what works for local jurisdictions. 

We're doing that already. We're particularly focusing on renewable energy. We have programs at the Energy Commission, Air Resources Board and Public Utilities Commission, and we are  meeting with these various departments and agencies  trying to figure out what resources are available. 

How do you encourage cities to take health into consideration, on top of all the other factors that go into land use planning? 

I think that's a fair observation: cities have a lot of things to deal with. But I think for everybody at the state level and the local level, health issues are central. At the state level, we're working on something called Health in All Policies through the Strategic Growth Council, which is an attempt to integrate health into all sorts of decisions at the state government level: infrastructure spending and regulatory issues. What policies affect health and how do we ensure that decisions that are made that do affect health do take into considerations those impacts.  

The Health in All Policies work group has just identified 11 such impacts and are now working on a program to integrate those 11 identified issues into state policy. When we're done with that, we're going to integrate some of that into general plan guidelines for local governments. It'll be on a voluntary basis. But we want to try to help  those jurisdictions that are interested in integrating heath into their planning decisions. We're going to introduce some informational processes to try to get some buy-in at local levels. 

For jurisdictions that may not have the capacity to have thought about this in an extensive way, they might be able to use some of the material, and say, ‘here's something off the shelf that we can do that might make quite a bit of difference.' For others, some of the jurisdictions are very sophisticated and it will be a reinforcement. As usual in California, there are all different sizes and shapes and we're trying to help as best we can. 

Photo of Ken Alex speaking at a UCLA / Berkeley Law forum May 23 in Sacramento courtesy of the UCLA School of Law.  Photo by Tia Gemmell.