Long criticized as a regulatory laggard, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District appears to be only one year away from becoming the first air district in the state to levy air quality impact fees on all new developments. The proposed fee would be based on the size and type of project, and development proponents whose projects meet certain criteria could minimize or avoid the fee all together.

Environmentalists and state regulators endorse the district’s approach, but developers and some local government officials have concerns. Among the biggest issues is the difficulty of defining a "nexus" between the fee and the true impact of new developments. District officials say new development means more automobile trips, and emissions generated during those trips must be offset.

But, said Bakersfield Planning Director Stanley Grady, "I’m wanting to see that there is a direct relationship between the fee and a reduction in tailpipe emissions from additional cars that moves us toward attainment."

So far, the district has not satisfied Grady, but the rulemaking process is young. The district intends to roll out a proposed program for public review this month.

After seeming to fly under the public policy radar for years, air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley has become a hot issue during the last few years. Environmentalists, anti-poverty activists and even medical professionals have taken to the courts. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has threatened to cut off federal transportation funding for the region because the Valley air district has not made progress in cleaning up pollution. State lawmakers have introduced bills, and this year the Legislature passed half of a 10-bill air pollution package authored by Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter). The Bakersfield Californian and Fresno Bee have printed major series on air pollution during the last year.

And the air is, indisputably, dirty (see CP&DR Environment Watch, April 2002). Bakersfield, Tulare, Visalia and Fresno now rank with Riverside, San Bernardino and Houston at the top of the national list for ozone pollution. The snow-capped high Sierra is rarely visible from the Valley floor these days because of airborne dust and soot — a visible change from only 20 years ago. Fresno County has the highest childhood asthma rate in the state, according to the American Lung Association.

Throughout it all, the Valley air district — governed by county supervisors and city councilmembers from eight Central Valley counties — has received increasingly harsh criticism for failing to act. The debate in the district, which stretches from San Joaquin County in the north to Kern County in the south, has frequently been cast as environment versus economy. The politics of regulating Valley air polluters, however, appears to have turned during the last few years, as evidenced by developers’, farmers’ and other members of the business community’s failure to defeat the aggressive legislation introduced by Florez (see CP&DR, October 2003).

One piece of Florez legislation, SB 709, which the district supported, requires the district to adopt a fee schedule on "area-wide or indirect sources of emissions." This provision, essentially, provides permission for the district to impose a fee on anything that generates automobile trips, such as housing developments, shopping centers, cinemas, arenas and office buildings. Only the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates metropolitan Southern California, and the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District have imposed indirect source fees on new development, and then only in select cases such as large employment sites, according to Jerry Martin, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Control Board.

After lawmakers passed and then-Gov. Davis signed SB 709, the San Joaquin Valley air district conducted workshops with planners, builders, environmentalists, community groups and others. The district will use input from those meetings in drafting the fee policies, which are scheduled to be released this month, said district Planning Manager Dave Mitchell. District officials hope to adopt a fee schedule this summer and begin collecting money via the counties and cities in January 2005, he said.

The fee schedule will take into account the size of the development, the types of land uses and the project’s design, Mitchell said. Regulators would prefer to see on-site mitigation. Thus, a relatively dense housing development on an infill site that is close to transit and is designed to encourage walking and bicycling might escape the fee altogether, he said.

"It will be a sliding scale and we’ll calculate the emissions based on the circumstances," Mitchell said.

Mitchell would not say how much the fees might be although he insisted the fees would not be onerous. During the mid-1990s, Valley air regulators proposed a fee of about $5,000 per new housing unit. That proposal hit widespread resistance and the agency dropped the idea.

With authorizing legislation now in hand, the district plans to combine the fee revenue with other revenues "to fund the most cost-effective emission-reduction projects," Mitchell explained. Those projects include replacing old, diesel-powered agricultural water pumps with cleaner-burning diesel or electric models, subsidizing hybrid vehicle purchases and paying for truck engine swaps. Funding for public transit projects is also a possibility, Mitchell said.

But the proposed spending plan is one area where the district hits friction.

"If an ag pump needs to be replaced," asks Bakersfield’s Grady, "why does that fall on the subdivider and not on the guy with the ag pump?"

Grady’s counterpart down the street, Kern County Planning Director Ted James, added, "I don’t have a sense that they [air district officials] can come up with an effective nexus."

Steve Madison, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Central California, echoed those concerns. He contended SB 709 supporters and the Valley air district have chosen an "easy source to target because they can attach a fee to it at the time of building permits." Madison and others in the building industry contend that the air district must scientifically quantify the air quality impacts of new development and connect expenditure of any fees to those impacts. State law requires no less, they say. Fees on new development cannot be used to solve an existing problem, they say.

Brian Todd, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Kern County, believes the entire approach is "way, way off base. Automobile trips are generated by population increases," he said. "People don’t buy a new house and then say, ‘Oh my gosh, I need a new Suburban.’"

Less than 1% of valley residents buy a new home in a given year. That small group should not carry the financial burden of cleaning up the air, especially when there appears to be no guarantee that fees will be spent in the neighborhoods where they are collected, Todd said.

Todd also insisted that housing builders are willing to take steps to mitigate air impacts. Builders can and have designed subdivision with short blocks to promote walking, planted additional trees, put charger stations for electric vehicles in garages, installed electric outlets outside to encourage use of electric yard equipment, and eliminated wood-burning fireplaces and stoves, Todd said.

Air quality regulators and environmentalists endorse the mitigation measures Todd listed. But, they say, more needs to be done. The California Environmental Quality Act compels the use of the most up-to-date information and mitigation, which should include an indirect source fee, according to Kevin Hall, a representative of the Sierra Club’s Tehipite Chapter.

Quantifying and understanding the air quality impacts of new development can be difficult, but they can be done, said Martin, of the Air Resources Board. Models for predicting the impacts of various types of development already exist. Mitchell, of the Valley air district, said industry experts are reviewing the agency’s emission models and proposed mitigation measures.

And despite builders’ protests that their projects do not worsen air quality, Martin said, "All of those projects are sources of pollution that did not exist before that subdivision was built."

The Valley air district plans to conduct workshops and public hearings on the fee proposal during coming months. Most people expect litigation to follow adoption of any fees.

Dave Mitchell, San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District, (559) 230-6000.
Stanley Grady, City of Bakersfield planning division, (661) 326-3733.
Brian Todd, Building Industry Association of Kern County, (661) 633-1316.
Steve Madison, Building Industry Association of Central California, (209) 529-4531.