After more than four years of taking a timid approach to land use, the Davis administration is going out with a flurry. In the days just before and after the recall election, the administration issued detailed policy papers, reports and legal guidelines on everything from general plans to the California Environmental Quality Act to groundwater.
Tal Finney, director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, promised to produce even more policy documents before stepping down, including the first update in 25 years of the Environmental Goals and Policy Report.
“I’ve been holding off for two years, and now it’s all coming out,” Finney said. “I really think California stands to gain for years to come from the work my staff has done in the last two years.”
The flood of thick reports hit so quickly that many lobbyists and observers — even those who had contributed to reports — were unable to keep up. “I have all of these things in front of me that I need to read,” said Jim Metropulos, a lobbyist on water issues for the Sierra Club.
While Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger and his backers called for Davis to stop signing bills and quit making appointments, the incoming administration has been silent on the last-minute release of the land use and natural resource documents. Exactly why reports and guidelines have hit all at once is unclear. Some sources said it appeared Davis’s inner circle of advisors, who had reportedly bottled up many of the reports, either stopped paying attention or no longer cared to play it safe.
Among the items that have come out are:
• The first update of CEQA Guidelines since the Wilson administration
• Expanded general plan guidelines
• The five-year update of the state water plan
• A comprehensive groundwater report issued by the Department of Water Resources (DWR)
• Environmental justice recommendations from CalEPA
• Water Desalination Task Force findings and recommendations
• A report on “green buildings” prepared by the Sustainable Building Task Force.
Other items that were reportedly ready to hit the street before Schwarzenegger takes office this month include the Environmental Goals and Policy Report, city incorporation guidelines for local agency incorporation commissions, an OPR environmental justice report, and a wetlands study by the State Water Resources Control Board.
Finney said the Environmental Goals and Policy Report would be “the ultimate planners tool.” He said it will address the environment, the economy, land use planning, the regulatory system and more. By law, the Legislature is supposed to have the opportunity to comment on the document before it is complete, but the report had not been forwarded to lawmakers as of late October. Still, Finney vowed the report would become public, and he added, “I can’t imagine Governor Schwarzenegger’s people won’t be interested in carrying this out.”
A document that did hit the streets after much delay was the CEQA Guidelines, prepared jointly by the Resources Agency and OPR. State officials had been working on an update since at least 2001, and draft updates with extensive Guideline amendments were circulated in 2002. Not all of those amendments made it into the update on which public comment closed October 6 — the day before the election. The revised Guidelines contain mostly technical, nonsubstantive changes, according to Finney. His office and the Resources Agency were working on more substantial changes, but administration officials do not have time to complete the work, Finney said.
A quick reading suggests the biggest Guidelines changes cover determinations of significance of cumulative impacts, mandatory findings of significance, expanded requirements for recirculation of an EIR when last-minute information becomes available, more inducements to tier environmental documents off of a master EIR, and a new categorical exemption for habitat restoration projects of 5 acres or less. (CP&DR will have a more extensive review of the amendments in future editions.)
The general plan guidelines, also an update of a Wilson-era document, contain a new section on environmental justice, an extensive discussion of public participation, a revised housing element section, guidance for water and energy elements, and recommendations for annual general plan implementation reports.
The environmental justice material is not entirely new to planners, so OPR wrapped environmental justice into a broader discussion of sustainability, explained Brian Grattidge, an OPR senior planner. The environmental justice section explains the statutory framework, and then emphasizes the importance of public participation, good information and analysis, equitable distribution of public facilities and services, and preventing concentrations of industrial facilities from impacting schools and homes.
The new public participation chapter provides more advice on the topic than previous editions of the guidelines and includes case studies. Much of the material may sound familiar to longtime planners, but the document makes the point that public participation is essential, said Julia Lave Johnston, of the California Research Bureau, who wrote the chapter. “It’s not a passing investment. It does make sense to do the groundwork,” she said.
Indeed, Grattidge said an OPR survey found that public participation consumes 25% of a typical general plan budget.
There is renewed interest in water and energy elements, which are optional under general plan law, Grattidge said. “What we’ve been seeing are energy strategic plans that are either regional or for a specific city. That’s something that could evolve into a general plan element, so we thought we should put the guidance out there,” he said.
While updated CEQA and general plan guidelines are usually high on planners’ reading lists, a new groundwater study should get the attention of anyone in the land use business. Interim Water Resources Director Michael Spear called the document, known as California Groundwater, Bulletin 118 — Update 2003, “the first comprehensive report on groundwater in the state in almost three decades.” Besides noting that groundwater aquifers continue to be overdrafted by 1 million to 2 million acre-feet annually, the report repeatedly notes that development affects the quantity and quality of groundwater.
“We really try to stress what a close link there is between land use decisions and potential benefits to groundwater if the decision is well thought out, or potential impacts if groundwater is not considered,” said John Woodling, principal geologist at DRW.
Woodling said the groundwater report can be considered a subset of the state water plan, which is known as Bulletin 160. The department released the water plan for stakeholder comments in October, with a draft for public comment due out this month.
The plan is similar to the Interior Department’s “Water 2025” framework in that both documents say we must make do with existing resources because additional storage facilities are unlikely to be built (see CP&DR Environment Watch and Public Development, August 2003). The state plan estimates California could get roughly 5 million to 7 million acre-feet of water for the growing population through urban and agricultural efficiency measures, transfers from farms to cities, municipal water recycling, improved system operations, groundwater storage, and desalination of brackish groundwater and sea water. Those measures would be enough to quench the state’s thirst for the next 25 years and still keep agriculture thriving, the agency contends.
The report has received mixed reviews. Farmers fear they will get squeezed too hard. Other people question whether the efficiencies the plan describes are realistic. Then there is the cost of implementing the measures. The plan does not contain detailed estimates but suggests the cost could be tens of billions of dollars.
Another water report, this one from DWR’s Water Desalination Task Force, makes clear that desalinated water could be a cost-effective way to provide a modest amount of water — less than 10% of future needs. But the “overarching recommendation” of the report is that “desalination projects should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”
Aside from water issues, CalEPA’s environmental justice recommendations appear to provide the state’s most comprehensive approach to the topic. The report — published on election day — emphasizes the need for public participation and for government agencies to respond to public input; the need for more scientific information, especially regarding cumulative impacts on communities; and integrating environmental justice into numerous government programs and planning efforts.
Besides issuing a great deal of virtual and real paper, the Davis administration also completed some major bond-funded land purchases during its final weeks. The state spent $140 million on a deal that resulted in the state acquiring or preserving about 550 acres at the Ballona wetlands in Los Angeles (see CP&DR Local Watch, October 2003). The other high-profile purchase was the $135 million acquisition of the 2,800-acre Ahmanson Ranch in eastern Ventura County, where an unpopular 3,000-unit subdivision had been approved (see CP&DR Insight, December 2002). Smaller deals included the purchase of 691 acres of timberland in Humboldt County for $18.3 from Pacific Lumber, and acquisition of 731 acres along Nevada County’s South Yuba River for $3.4 million from Sierra Pacific Industries.
Tal Finney and Brian Grattidge, Office of Planning and Research, (916) 445-0613.
John Woodling, Department of Water Resources, (916) 651-9291.