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Storm Clouds Over Clean Air : Governor must reconcile competing visions

June 30, 1991

A muffled ruckus between Southern California's air quality experts and its only regional planning agency is yet another strong argument for more enlightened planning law.

The problem can--and should--be settled in negotiations. At the same time, it should remind Gov. Pete Wilson's Growth Management Task Force that it is involved with a very real problem that needs action soon.

The issue that is causing trouble is growth management, a concept that has always gone against the Southern California grain but that may be the only way for it to prosper. Specifically, the South Coast Air Quality Management District is concerned that a growth management plan its board has to accept or reject in two weeks is soft in that it does not explicitly guarantee that cities and counties will do what the plan says they must do to achieve clean air.

Unfortunately, the solution the smog specialists are considering is to remove the growth management plan from the updated air quality management plan on which they vote July 12.

The planning agency, the Southern California Assn. of Governments, agrees that some of its t's are not crossed but argues--persuasively, we think--that erasing any mention of growth management will set back years of effort to get cities and counties behind a concept that the region has resisted.

The association is a coalition of six counties and more than 100 cities that inches forward by consensus, using the only power it has to enforce plans that its directors approve: persuasion.

The air quality district was created by state law to drive smog out of the region. Although it depends on the association for some of the planning needed to carry out its mission, its bottom line is cleaner air above all--and that has always meant a certain amount of tension between the two of them.

Partly because federal and state governments are looking over their shoulders, its smog managers want markers that will show tangible progress toward cleaner air. But planning is a long-term piece of work that may show no results for years and then suddenly produce startling reductions in air pollution--for example, if cities and counties could be persuaded to build new neighborhoods and reconfigure old areas in ways that not only discourage the use of automobiles (which contribute 60% of the region's ingredients of smog) but also make them less necessary.

And the association's relations with its supporting counties and cities complicate the problem. Its only charter is to create plans. Its members are under no obligation to follow the plans.

The problem of power is endemic to such regional planning exercises, so it is no wonder the Wilson task force is taking a hard look. The million-dollar question is whether such plans should be enforceable. Sacramento is not likely to find a better reason for a complete review of regional planning than this remarkable clash of philosophies between two well-intentioned but competing government agencies.

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