The 2003-04 legislative session has closed with the passage of dozens of mostly minor land use bills, and the failure of dozens of others. Still, lawmakers did pass a bipartisan measure creating a new Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and they continued to hammer on local governments about affordable housing development.

The Legislature approved a number of brownfields, infill and housing bills that could fall under the definition of “smart growth.” Lawmakers also moved to protect natural resources, ranging from oak woodlands to Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta farmland to the ocean.

Money measures went nowhere during the two-year session. Proposed state bonds for items such as transportation and other infrastructure barely received a hearing. Bills that sought to lower the voter threshold for approval of local tax increases found no favor. And, with a few exceptions, bills and constitutional amendments that sought to reform the state-local fiscal relationship also died with no fanfare during a legislative session marked by huge state budget deficits.

Broad policy initiatives in any area of land use were absent again during this two-year session, in part because the Schwarzenegger administration never asserted itself on the subject. Many people expect that to change next year.

Creation of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy might be — literally — the most far-reaching bill passed this year, as the jurisdiction of the proposed Conservancy would stretch from the foothills outside Bakersfield to the Oregon border. Under AB 2600, the Conservancy would be something of a conduit for state and federal funding to the region. In fact, the state budget for 2004-05 already contains $4 million for the Conservancy.

The bill was the culmination of at least five years of background work by the Sierra Business Council and other advocates (see CP&DR, May 2004). The bill is remarkable in part because it was co-authored by Democratic Assembly John Laird of Santa Cruz and Republican Assemblyman Tim Leslie, who represents a largely rural and conservative district in the mountains. Resources Agency Secretary Mike Chrisman has endorsed AB 2600, and the governor’s signature is expected.

The Conservancy itself will not be able to acquire land, but it may acquire easements and it may provide money to nonprofit entities or local governments for the purpose of buying land. Republican Leslie demanded the provision prohibiting land acquisition, which would make this Conservancy different from its eight counterparts statewide. Environmentalists were willing to concede that in exchange for including more territory in the Conservancy’s jurisdiction. The agency’s territory would encompass everything related to the Sierra, from blue oak woodlands on the edge of the Central Valley to the dusty valleys on the east side of the mountain range, as well as all of the major watersheds.

“Watersheds are the most basic ecological unit around which to organize services,” said Elizabeth Martin, a lobbyist for a foundation called the Sierra Fund, who noted that county lines often run down the middle of rivers. “The larger unit of management reflects how the Sierra is plumbed and how wildlife moves around.”

Property rights advocates and counties themselves are mixed on the idea. They complain that a Conservancy would be another layer of government and would tie up more land in a region that is already mostly in the hands of the government.

But Martin and other backers contend that design of the proposed Conservancy places great emphasis on local needs and desires. Six county supervisors will sit on the conservancy’s 13-member board, and the fact that the agency will not be able to buy land means that it must work with local governments and local land trusts, Martin said. There is no regulatory scheme, she pointed out.

A different proposal to encourage natural resources conservation — this one for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — was not approved this year, partly because of its proposed regulatory scheme. Instead, lawmakers approved a bill to modestly beef up the role of the existing Delta Protection Commission (AB 2476-Wolk). They also approved a new program (SB 86-Machado) that provides financial incentives to Delta landowners who manage their land to protect natural and agricultural resources.

Senate Bill 86 was a reaction to an earlier version of AB 2476, which could have given the Delta Protection Commission a much greater role in fringe urbanization issues and farmland conversion (see CP&DR, June 2004). If Schwarzenegger signs SB 86, the Coastal Conservancy would run the new program.

“It allows the Delta to access the Conservancy’s expertise without having to invent a new agency,” said William Geyer, a lobbyist for Delta landowners. They backed the concept because it could provide annual payments to them based on their management practices, rather than a one-time payment for an agricultural or open space easement.

In the area of housing, the two highest-profile bills were SB 1818 (Hollingsworth) and AB 2702 (Steinberg). Affordable housing advocates, the California Association of Realtors and some development interests backed both bills, while the League of California Cities, the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) and the California Chapter of the American Planning Association opposed both measures.

Under the existing law, a city or county must provide a 25% density bonus to a developer who provides a certain percentage of units for low- or moderate-income residents or seniors. Senate Bill 1818 has three major provisions: It gives builders a greater density bonus for donating land to a nonprofit entity or local government for the construction of affordable housing; it sets a range of bonuses from 20% to 35% depending on the amount and type of affordable or senior units provided; and it lets a developer select three incentives, such as relaxed parking standards or smaller setbacks.

Assembly Bill 2702 builds on a law approved two years ago that requires local governments to handle applications for second dwelling units ministerially. The new bill would prohibit cities and counties from establishing perpetual occupancy rules, mandating units smaller than 550 square feet, requiring covered parking or establishing minimum lot sizes greater than double the size of the primary residence.

Affordable housing lobbyist Marc Brown said the negative reaction of some cities to the 2002 legislation was behind the latest bill. “If these cities had not gone off the deep end and tried to undercut all of this stuff, we would not have been back with new legislation this year,” Brown said. He said that, under AB 2702, cities and counties still have the authority ban second units outright, limit them to certain areas and restrict their numbers geographically.

But local government representatives fought both bills as intrusions into local rule.

“They weren’t able to substantiate the problems that they were using as a basis for AB 2702,” said CSAC Lobbyist DeAnn Baker, who complained that the bill invites rental duplexes into single-family neighborhoods. “There are unintended consequences when you get that prescriptive in state law. There could be a lot of backlash to second units.”
In a letter to the Sacramento Bee, California Association of Realtors President Ann Pettijohn charged local governments with “engaging in scare tactics.”

That prompted League of California Cities Lobbyist Daniel Carrigg to respond: “Rather than seeking changes to local ordinances in city halls and chambers of county supervisors — where the affected residents can engage in the debate — the Realtors are attempting to use the Legislature to mandate their views statewide.”

Interestingly, Republicans played a major role in both affordable housing bills. Senate Bill 1818 was carried by Republican Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta, and Republicans provided the necessary votes for approval of AB 2702. The interest among legislative Republicans in housing, combined with the Republican Schwarzenegger administration’s known support for housing development, could provide affordable housing advocates with some important allies during the next legislative session, which begins in December.