Highlights from APA California

Martha Bridegam on
Sep 24, 2014

CP&DR was livetweeting extensively from panels at the APA California conference, as you can see by scrolling back to our September 14 and 15 posts at http://www.twitter.com/Cal_plan. Following are some notes filling out those highlights in context, and adding some further notes on issues raised at the conference.

How to relate VMT estimates to each other?

At a conference panel on the proposed SB 743 changes to traffic impact assessments and SB 375 CEQA streamlining, panelists had few clear answers on whether SB 743 aided or even might hinder the goal of creating simpler, more reliable procedures for project approval. But they had definite concerns about whether work done to study Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) might have to be redone on a different scale, or by a different method, if the calculation approaches weren't coordinated and standardized.

Bob Leiter, a consultant who formerly headed land use and transportation planning for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), said the old-school LOS congestion analysis that SB 743 seeks to replace had stopped some projects that met compact development goals of SB 375.

Kirk Trost, Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel of the Sacramento Area Council of Goverments (SACOG), said SB 375 provided an explicit exemption from doing regional transportation analysis, but SB 743 obligations might include a duty to perform project-specific analyses.

More energetic discussion at the SB 743 / SB 375 panel concerned the many ways to calculate Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), the multiple approaches that have evolved to date in different programs, and the awkwardness of adjusting one to another. For example, Fred Dock, Transportation Director for the city of Pasadena, said his office had already begun calculating VMT on a citywide level. He wasn't certain, however, how the work already done in Pasadena might fit in with the regional-average standard proposed under SB 743 in the guidelines proposed this August by the Office of Planning and Research. (See http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3576 and http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3560.) 

OPR's proposed guidelines document links directly to several different Web pages offering "sketch model" interactive worksheets to calculate VMT. (See http://bit.ly/1kOofPD, Appendix F, starting Page 36.) The panelists said officials and project proponents needed to understand better which calculation methods would be accurate and respected enough to survive legal challenges -- and public agencies would need budgets to put staff time into research on the subject.

Leiter recommended a staff report by Peter Imhof of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) on ways regional differences might affect the proposed SB 743 VMT guidelines. The report appears as an attachment to a recent SBCAG advisory committee agenda at http://bit.ly/1uFvU4p.

Leiter and Trost thought it would be helpful to create provisional VMT guidelines and test them out in a feedback process before enforcing definite rules.

CEQA Guidelines discussion with Calfee becomes comment session

The presence of OPR Senior Counsel Chris Calfee on the panel turned a discussion on the 2014 CEQA Guidelines Amendments into a comment session to help Calfee take the conference group's temperature on possible CEQA guideline revisions.

Calfee told the group that although a comprehensive update to the CEQA guidelines had been in the works for some time, OPR had decided not to publish it during the SB 743 traffic impact metrics debate in order not to "distract from those issues." He called the delay "a blessing in disguise" in that it allowed OPR to continue taking comment and revising the guidelines draft accordingly. (He carefully did not offer clues to any timetable for their release.)

Panelist Doug Carstens, of the CEQA petitioners' firm Chatten-Brown & Carstens, praised OPR for publicly posting all comments received on the guideline revisions. Comments and other CEQA regulatory materials are posted at http://opr.ca.gov/s_ceqaguidelines.php. Among three groups of comments linked from the page, the group from summer 2013, indexed at www.opr.ca.gov/docs/word_of_index.pdf, got attention for a City of Los Angeles Planning letter posted there. The letter, appearing on Page 57 at http://opr.ca.gov/docs/CEQA_Guidelines_Public_Comments.pdf#page%3D57, objects to what it describes as the current practice of treating "illegal uses that are already in place" as "part of the existing environmental baseline." It said, "By amending the definition of baseline to include only uses that were legally in place at the time of application, we can require these illegal uses to at least mitigate for the impacts that they create." Or if not, the letter asked that guidelines "include ways to alter the baseline in the record... to catch illegal or unapproved operations."

Calfee singled out the case of Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2013) 57 Cal.4th 439 as "a really interesting one" on CEQA baselines -- "the court gave us a really good policy rationale" -- on when to stick with an assessment of existing conditions as the baseline. (The case is accessible free via search at http://www.lexisnexis.com/clients/CACourts/.)

As Bill Fulton explained last year at http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3392, the California Supreme Court held in the Smart Rail case that lead agencies may be able to use a "future baseline" -- a comparison of projected future conditions with and without the proposed project, rather than comparison with the present day. However, a bare majority of the Court found that future baselines are only permissible with carefully documented justifications.

Panelist Barbara Schussman of Perkins Coie, however, viewed the case as suggesting that an "existing conditions" CEQA baseline could be read more broadly than some people might think, though a "distant future" baseline such as the rail program's 2030 projection did require a strong showing. 

Moderator Curtis Alling, of Ascent Environmental, invited shows of hands to tell OPR the relative importance of issues to clarify in the new guidelines. The conference audience cared intensely about more clarity on standards of review, baseline-setting, CEQA's interaction with other environmental rules, and when it becomes acceptable to defer mitigation measures until later in a project. They showed less interest in clarifications on the feasibility and alternatives process or on the types of public paper and online notices require.

Panelists and audience agreed that Internet posting of notices still can't be treated as sufficient to reach the whole public. (Agreement seemed a bit less clear on what Internet posting standard should be met.)

Also on the panel, Mindy Fogg, Planning Manager with the County of San Diego, suggested agencies should help their publics to understand and use the alternatives process, as an underused means of improving projects.

And Alling suggested OPR could make existing CEQA streamlining methods more accessible to local lead agencies by assembling a "CEQA toolbox" of possible methods to consider.

Other insights from conference panels:

  • Jason Uhley, Chief of Watershed Protection for Riverside County, complained from local experience that infill projects could be put at a disadvantage by rules designed to regulate standalone "greenfield" developments: a requirement to treat all new runoff on a newly developed property could make an infill builder responsible for water travelling along streets from existing development.
  • For new projects' water effects, speakers on different panels mentioned pressures toward handling new projects' impacts through off-site compensations: to offset a new demand on local water supply, a developer might be asked to contributed to a regional "water bank"; to compensate for runoff effects, a developer might contribute to an "alternative" mitigation project elsewhere in the region.
  • Bryn Evans of the Dudek environmental consulting firm said if the state water bond passed, to look for more integration between management of water supplies and of stormwater.
  • A discussion of diversity and tourism in Los Angeles County in part explored what former Burbank mayor Emily Gabel-Luddy called "the decentralization of experience" through transit. Panelists said improved transit could help draw tourists, including overseas visitors, into a broader variety of Los Angeles physical and cultural landscapes, and could help residents of low-income neighborhoods travel more easily to opportunities elsewhere in the region. The panel also highlighted some major economic development efforts in LA that may result in shifting travel patterns. Former City Council member Jan Perry, now General Manager of the Los Angeles Economic and Workforce Development Department, discussed downtown affordable housing increases (now hampered by the loss of redevelopment financing), efforts to slow traffic and promote cultural tourism on historic Central Avenue, local-hire provisions in project labor agreements, and economic development around the Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital project in Willowbrook (see http://planning.lacounty.gov/willowbrook). Glyn Milburn of Mayor Eric Garcetti's office described a major expansion of Universal Studios as planning to add 30,000 jobs, which he said would ideally be reached by daily transit commuters -- for example, from Santa Clarita. (County Specific Plan materials for Universal Studios are at http://1.usa.gov/1qsqSlG.)
  • In a panel on housing issues in areas "where industry is king", Amitabh Barthakur of HR&A Advisors said production/distribution/repair (PDR) jobs were declining in Southern California but demand for industrial real estate was rising, especially inland where larger floor areas could be built. The reason? Demand for warehouse and distribution space for goods produced elsewhere.
  • Lara Gates, Community Plan Update Project Manager with the City of San Diego Planning Department, recounted some of Barrio Logan's history as an industrial-residential neighborhood where residential neighbors have organized to assert cultural and environmental rights; the largely resident-supported creation of the Barrio Logan Community Plan ("I went and walked every single parcel") and its shipyard-backed defeat in two June citywide ballot measures (see http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3510 for prior coverage). Since the defeat of the plan, Gates said the existing "mishmash" of zoning-authorized uses remained in effect, including industrial zoning "completely ringing an elementary school." In the negotiations on what should happen next, she said local industry advocates were asking to reinstate industrial uses in the area that the plan had sought to designate as a transition zone. She predicted litigation would follow. She said lessons for planners included working closely with industrial interests to understand their goals; laying down solid baseline data; concurrently reviewing both land use planning and zoning; and engaging community and political support, including understanding what local elected officials are hearing.
  • In the housing-and-industry panel, and in a separate panel on projects near roadways, planners from dense urban areas talked about the difficulty of imposing any outright ban on sensitive uses, such as schools or housing, near industrial polluters or roadways. (Los Angeles County's ban on affordable housing within 500 feet of freeways has actually been opposed by some activists as shutting out freeway-crossed neighborhoods from housing funds that they need. See http://www.shelterforce.org/article/3346/living_in_the_buffer/.)
  • Connie Chung of the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning said in the roadways discussion that many community development and transit-oriented development effort have focused in areas near major roadways (not solely freeways) that create dense air pollution. Realistically, she said, focus for development in buffer areas near big roadways has to be less prohibition in than mitigation.
  • On the other hand, Ian MacMillan, Program Supervisor for CEQA Intergovernmental Review with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said the 500-foot buffer distance consistently seemed to be the "magic number" for housing. And there are costs to building near freeways with the mitigations that freeway-damaged air quality requires. MacMillan said mitigation in such areas could include use of expensive high-quality indoor air filters that would have to be replaced timely throughout the life of the building -- potentially a cost and maintenance issue for affordable housing. Cathy Fitzgerald of PlaceWorks said especially high-level air filters, above the MERV-13 level, can create problems with air flow resistance, high maintenance costs, and possibly a need for special HVAC systems.
  • For jurisdictions or builders looking to estimate roadway emissions, Leland Villalvazo, Supervising Air Quality Specialist with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, offered an online estimator -- not necessarily approved by all jurisdictions, but with data available for all California Counties. He offered links to the District's "Inventory and Modeling Resources" links page at http://www.valleyair.org/busind/pto/Resources/resources_idx.htm, and directly to the estimator at ftp://12.219.204.27/public/Modeling/Final/Roadway/.
  • At the industry-vs.-housing panel, a conference participant from Chula Vista noted a problem with industrial landlords in prime industrial areas who, when demand for industrial uses periodically goes slack, try to fill in their space with non-industrial tenants such as martial arts studios or small churches. The temporary tenants change the character of the area; when heavy industry returns, its effects on the non-industrial tenants create land use conflicts. Laura Stetson of the MIG planning firm said it can be important to set and enforce firm code restrictions against non-industrial uses in such areas.
  • A broad discussion that started from the subject of second-round Sustainable Communities Strategies featured a meeting of powerful regional governance figures: Executive Directors Gary Gallegos of SANDAG, Mke McKeever of SACOG, and Hasan Ikhrata of SCAG, and Ken Kirkey, MTC plan director. Of the four, Ikhrata was best at sound bites. In a comment that quickly drew approval online, he said of the Los Angeles transit network, "Right now we are going back to the future. We are building the system that we got rid of." He said studies showed "Millenials prefer access to ownership." And with an ironic reference to "the Happiest Place on Earth," he talked about families packed into overcrowded housing in Santa Ana, not far from the Disneyland conference site; he said people will house themselves somehow.
  • Gallegos of SANDAG (the San Diego Association of Governments) reported initial success for San Diego's first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project with managed lanes; he reported a 40% cost recovery rate from transit fares; McKeever of SACOG (Sacramento Area Council of Governments) said other areas could only aspire to a 40% cost recovery rate. "We're a light year away from that."
  • Gallegos said he had hoped cap-and-trade would fund ongoing transit operations more than it has.
  • Kirkey of the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission mentioned a need to use public funding to develop jobs outside the tech sector that don't necessarily require college diplomas.
  • Anona Dutton, vice president of water resources practice with the firm of Erler and Kalinowski, said water supply assessments required by SB 610 "show me the water" rules would be more under scrutiny to the extent they relied on groundwater. She said project proponents and administrators would also need to consider if water supply assessments put forward during 2014-2015, after several years of severe drought, could still be safely based on the Urban Water Management Plans developed in the better-watered year of 2010. (For delays in the plan deadlines and changed provisions see CP&DR's news briefs on the new AB 2067 and SB 1036, both signed since the conference.)
  • Dutton said water supply offset requirements for new projects, such as those now applied by EBMUD, are a trend moving west from inland, e.g. New Mexico. She also said careful conservation and recycling can be used to get projects built. She said one developer of a large project reduced its per capita *potable* use projection to 30 gallons per day.
  • Eric Robinson, the water practice manager with the firm of Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann & Girard, said a good "teaching case" on practical application of the state's water supply assessment rules would be the First Appellate District's Sonoma County Water Coalition v. Sonoma County Water Agency (2010) 189 Cal.App.4th 33.
  • Although Disneyland's fantasy towers and transplanted palm trees formed a viewshed around the conference, news reports of strained natural resources formed its real backdrop: drought conditions, wildfires, and record-setting summer heat. It became routine to hear panelists, especially water and air quality specialists, reporting on pressures imposed by scarcity to acknowledge physical logistical demands, such as depletion of groundwater. As with the questioning of 2010 water plans, many of the experts were warning planners not to presume that formal assumptions could insulate them or the public from jagged facts. For a conference built in part around raising the value of property investments, it gave a great deal of time to the notion that the physical limits of air, water, and transportation systems can and do limit property rights in land.