Tom Mullen was a Riverside County supervisor from 1995 until January 2003. He was the initial proponent on the Board of Supervisors of taking a comprehensive approach to development, habitat and transportation planning. That effort eventually became known as the Riverside County Integrated Project (RCIP). This planning was a response to the county’s rapid growth (the population has nearly tripled in 25 years and now stands at 1.7 million) and to forecasts that growth will continue for decades.
After more than four years of work — and after Mullen left office — supervisors adopted both the multi-species habitat conservation plan and the general plan portions of the RCIP in 2003. Work continues on the transportation plan. City representatives, developers, landowners, environmentalists, and "smart growth" advocates have found things to dislike about the plans. Still, the RCIP is likely the most comprehensive planning effort ever undertaken at the local level, and, at $35 million, definitely the most expensive (see CP&DR, January 2002, February 2000).
Mullen is now president of Viresco Energy, a startup, renewable energy company. Prior to serving on the Board of Supervisors, Mullen was an aide to Democratic State Sen. Robert Presley. Mullen spoke with CP&DR Editor Paul Shigley at an office in downtown Riverside.
CP&DR: What would you tell a county supervisor or a planning director considering a comprehensive approach like the RCIP? What should they know from the outset?
Mullen: The most important thing I believe that they need to know is that while there is a critical technical aspect to this … this is really a political process. I have told our team time and again, technically we could probably have gotten through this in 36 months, probably 24 months. But it’s the political process. You’ve got to understand that it’s a political process first, last and foremost, and that the technical studies are the ones that provide the data to make ultimately those political decisions.
CP&DR: Did you recognize these things as you headed into the RCIP?
Mullen: Absolutely. … My recommendation, which fortunately was followed, was to put together a stakeholder-driven process. So far it’s worked.
CP&DR: As work on RCIP went on and evolved, how many changes did you have to make to the process?
Mullen: Initially, the biggest challenge was to get my own board, and then the cities, to buy into the process. The next buy-in had to be at the federal level. If the feds could not guarantee that they would be an active participant on a daily basis at the highest possible level, we didn’t stand a chance.
CP&DR: Is that because of the species issues?
Mullen: That’s because of the federal Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the transportation issues involved.
So we had to have Washington’s involvement and we had to have the regional involvement at very high levels. You’re talking about a real commitment of resources. And, again, that same level of involvement at the state level.
It’s not that one is more important than the other. If you don’t have those three political pieces absolutely firm, then none of the bureaucracies are going to have the resources to put into an effort like this and to stay with it. Amazingly, we were successful at all three levels. Clearly, the Board of Supervisors led the effort. The cities were involved and at the table.
And let me point out the fourth aspect of this — I talked about the stakeholder group, they are as critical as these other political bodies are — and that is having the environmental community stay at the same table with the property owners.
And then to put together a technical team that can understand the need to hold that entire coalition together. We were very fortunate on the county side to have Richard Lashbrook [director of the county Transportation and Land Management Agency], who is just incredibly competent in that leadership position. Just as solid as a rock.
Keep in mind that you’re looking at not just the habitat, you’re looking at transportation and you’re looking at housing.
CP&DR: It seems reasonable to want to address all three of those things at the same time, but no one ever tries to.
Mullen: And then to do it on the scale that we are doing it. The general plan covered the entire county, and this county is 72 square miles smaller than the state of New Jersey. It’s just slightly smaller in population and area than the state of Massachusetts. … In the western end of this county, from the Banning Pass down to San Diego County, it’s 2.2 million acres. It’s an area larger than all of Orange County. That’s where the three plans came together — the habitat, transportation and housing plans. There isn’t anything in the country that will come close to what we’re doing. On the transportation side, this is a $13 billion plan.
There are 250,000 acres that are presently built on. We end up setting aside about 500,000 acres. About half of the available land in western Riverside County is set aside — in one of the fastest-growing, most dynamic places in the entire world.
The other remarkable thing [is] if you go back to the ’50s and ’60s and look at our freeway system, the state funded 80%, I believe it was. Today, local government funds better than 50%. On the habitat side, we used to be able to buy a lot of things with state and federal money. And, clearly, we’ve gotten good state and federal money, but the majority of that land that we’re setting aside is going to be [funded] by Riverside County residents. And the infrastructure that goes with housing used to be shared across a larger tax base. Now it’s essentially the new homebuyer.
CP&DR: You spoke about having to keep all of these people with their disparate interests moving in the same direction. How have you tried to keep the cities involved and on the same page with you?
Mullen: You start out with critical data, like population. Then, you go through databases: How many species on the endangered or threatened list reside in the county today? How many species are likely to fall on the list in the future? What does that portend for infrastructure? What are the infrastructure needs, and under today’s regulatory scheme how soon can we expect to get infrastructure built? Then, what are the housing needs for just families living in this county? So you begin to build the database, and then you start looking at the population projections.
You begin to look at traffic numbers. If you took the 91, as an example, the traffic numbers … just explode. They double in 10 years. And then begin to look at them on the arterials. And you start putting that data together, and you take that to the cities. And you say, look folks, here are the traffic numbers, here are the infrastructure problems and under the regulatory regime that we’ve got to work with today, you’re not going to be able build these freeways for 20 to 30 years.
So, you say, why did that happen? What are the reasons for this taking so long? Well, you go back to the environmental regulatory rules that you’ve got to work with. What’s the most significant one? It’s the ESA today. So how do you end up solving that? My argument was that you solve it by dealing with it up front. You do it first and, ideally, you do it concurrently with everything else.
CP&DR: So you present all this to the cities, and then what?
Mullen: Then you invite them to the table. You make them part of the process, and that’s what we did. We did that both at the transportation commission and at the COG [Western Riverside Council of Governments]. … They were part of, and still are, the decision-making process, just like the feds and the state are.
CP&DR: Where do the cities stand now with relationship to the plan?
Mullen: They have all adopted the plan. They’ve adopted the fee. Are they all happy? No. Is there really anyone who is 100% happy? Absolutely not because you put together a comprehensive plan like this and there is a series of compromises.
CP&DR: In some of the early incantations of the plan there was a lot of focus on community centers or town centers — very dense pockets of development in about 20 different areas. The plan seemed to go away from that approach. Why?
Mullen: That was over property rights issues. And I also think there was a little lost sight of what the future holds. Are they completely gone? No. … The building industry was all for it. But it was the cities that principally fought that as a result of fear, the fear being that you end up with densities, they become slums, and they breed crime.
One of the things that is not specifically included in the transportation portion of the RCIP but that I was able to get through the transit agency … was a look at the bus rapid transit system.
You ought to be able to walk out of your house 1,000 feet and get on a piece of equipment and go to school, go the doctor, go the babysitter, go to the market, go to lunch, go to the office more easily than getting in your car, fighting the traffic and finding someplace to park. And you do that for western Riverside County in an incremental way. And what happens is that you begin to see the value of density and of these centers. I’m optimistic that in the future we’ll have those centers because they make economic sense, they make social sense and they make transportation sense.
CP&DR: As for implementation, how do the county and all of the cities stick with the RCIP to make it work?
Mullen: Money. That’s what’s going to do it.
One of the things I argued for and I never had time to put together [was that] since residents are going to have to pay for this thing anyway, it’s cheaper to pay for it now than in the future. So give us about a $15 billion loan and let us pay it off over 50 years at Treasury rates and we can get that stuff in today and the quality of life goes up exponentially.
CP&DR: If you can’t get a $15 billion loan, how do you pay for this?
Mullen: On the transportation side, back in 1988 we had a half-cent measure on the ballot and we passed it by almost 80%. This time around , we passed it by almost 70%. In that, we had implanted two fees. And this went to the cities. If they didn’t collect the uniform traffic mitigation fee, they would not get any of the Measure A money for transportation. And we had a habitat fee. The habitat fees are around $1,500 [per acre]. So we’ll raise, I think they figured between all of the local money — which includes Measure A and the Transportation Uniform Mitigation Fee, which is roughly $6,600 [per unit] — and state and federal money, around $8 billion. That leaves us roughly $5 billion short, but we’ll have about two-thirds in the bank.
CP&DR: Does this plan learn from some of the mistakes that were made elsewhere in Southern California?
Mullen: There were a lot of mistakes here and elsewhere. When we first encountered the Endangered Species Act back in 1985 or 1986, [there was a proposal] to build a retirement village at March Air Force Base. Maybe 100 acres. They ran into the Stephens kangaroo rat. I was with Sen. Presley at the time and attended a meeting on his behalf with county, state and fed officials. They ended up setting aside I think it was 12 acres for the rat. We said at the time, county you’d better think about dealing in a more comprehensive manner with these species issues because they’re going to be coming down the line.
Counties didn’t do that. Cities didn’t do it. Developers didn’t do it. Property owners didn’t do it. So … one piece of infrastructure after another is held up because of endangered species, the Clean Water Act, those kinds of things.
You’ve got to look at those lessons and I think that’s what we did. I think it’s a reasonable start. I would even say it’s an outstanding start if you look at the disparate entities that were at the table that put this thing together.