Land Use Planning Agencies - Give them an inch and they will take miles

Today’s land use planning bureaucracy manifests itself everywhere.  The Bay Area hosts two major players in the planning arena, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments.  These two behemoths gave birth to Plan Bay Area, under whose meticulous and all-encompassing planning residents attempt to live a normal life.

How did land use planning become so pervasive?  Bureaucracies are like ants.  You ignore one or two strolling in your kitchen counter or garden at your own peril. You will wake in the morning to find your cookies gone or your favorite rose bush bare. 

        Give them an inch, and they will take all your rose bushes.

        Give them an inch, and they will take all your rose bushes.

Until 1969, land use and circulation (transportation) were the only elements of local general plans required in California law.  Housing, along with other topics such as open space, was sometimes dealt with in optional general plan elements by ambitious cities and counties.(Paul Lewis, California’s Housing Element Law: The Issue of Local Noncompliance)

The first ant in the rose garden was then-Assemblyman Pete Wilson’s 1969 bill requiring that each city and county in California include a housing element in its planning.  In 1971, legislators passed a bill requiring local jurisdictions to follow the guidelines of the California Department of Housing and Community Development, and Jerry Brown, during his first tenure as California Governor strengthened the DHCD.  In 1977 the guidelines were extensively revised to include ample details and also to require a regional “fair-share housing plan,” under which jurisdictions within a certain region needed to absorb a fair share of projected population moving into the region.  In 1980, Assembly Bill 2853 enshrined the guidelines into statute, and put DHCD in charge of reviewing plans of local jurisdictions. 

Embellishments followed, including passage in 2006 of Assembly Bill 32, Global Warming Solutions Act, and passage in 2008 of Senate Bill 375, Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act.  These two optimistically-named bills added a new dimension, and new sets of mandates, to housing element plans.  Housing - as well as transportation, economic development, and population movement – became a centrally-planned bundled service.

[R]educing greenhouse gases is only one part of the equation for California. As we build our clean energy future, we must also ensure that our efforts to fight climate change continue to meet clean air standards and benefit community and ecosystem resilience. Achieving these intertwined goals requires a multi-pronged strategy that also delivers reductions in criteria and toxic pollution especially in disadvantaged communities that are disproportionately burdened by the impacts of pollution. In addition to regulatory measures, investment in communities through the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program, the Transformational Climate Communities Program, Low Carbon Transportation Program and the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program, result in reduced pollution, increased jobs and improved conditions in communities throughout California that are the most impacted.

The excerpt above is from the CA Air Resources Board 2017 Climate Change Scoping Plan Update.  In the old days, such mandated “intertwined goals” and “multi-pronged strategy” were called “central planning,” something considered bad form in a democracy.  Today, it thrives and grows.

California Senator Scott Wiener’s SB 35 is now being reviewed by the Senate Governance & Finance Committee.  His press release on the bill says,

The Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) is the state-mandated process that sets the number of housing units that must be included, at all affordability levels, in each local jurisdiction’s housing element. Under SB 35, if cities aren’t on track to meet those goals, then approval of projects will be streamlined if they meet a set of objective criteria, including affordability, density, zoning, historic, and environmental standards, and if they pay prevailing wage for construction labor.

Modest government policies such as Pete Wilson’s 1969 housing element guidelines usually turn into unstoppable and often draconian forces.  Then people fight or take flight.  Although California is not yet experiencing net outmigration, the state’s migration rate per 1,000 residents has decreased from 2.1 in 2012 to 0.9 in 2016.  Some who stay choose to fight by forming action groups such as Citizen Marin , Orinda Watch and the Nine-County Coalition.