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Growth Without Tears . . . or Fears

February 07, 1993

Gov. Pete Wilson began the new year on the right foot last month when he unveiled a long-awaited growth management plan for California. The effort quickly drew praise from some Democratic legislators and even some environmentalists, in part because it is the clearest signal yet that the governor is ready to put aside the unproductive partisan battling of last year and attend to the state's pressing needs. Indeed, coordinated growth management planning is among the state's highest priorities.

But two years after Wilson first announced his intent to create a comprehensive plan, his proposal is more a broad outline with promising ideas than it is a workable final product.

The plan calls for drafting statewide standards on growth and natural resource conservation. Wilson's plan would also provide financial incentives to local governments that adopt growth management plans consistent with state standards. Assistance would come from a new state "infrastructure bank" funded with money from bond sales. Every city and county would be required to develop a comprehensive plan to guide future development; localities would then be exempt from detailed environmental review of specific projects determined to be consistent with that plan. Opponents of specific projects would have limited opportunities to object. New regional planning bodies, Councils of Governments, would replace the current agencies in order to simplify and better coordinate government regulation. But the new councils would have no taxing authority or general land-use powers.

The plan is the work of the governor's Interagency Council on Growth Management. As such, it reflects the sometimes competing goals and constituencies of the several agencies that make up that council, including Cal EPA and the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.

Two issues deserve more attention: first, the prospects for funding. The state infrastructure bank, for example, will provide local governments with matching funds for public works projects. It's a good idea, but localities historically have found it almost impossible to get the required two-thirds voter approval to pass city or county bonds. The governor's proposal does little to increase the odds of passage. A pending Democratic version of the infrastructure bank would deal with that issue by amending the state Constitution to permit approval of local bonds with a simple majority vote.

Second, Wilson's proposal to limit environmental review raises questions. He long had argued for streamlining the regulatory process while retaining basic environmental safeguards; such reform does not dilute essential regulations. Wilson's current approach needs to be examined very carefuly: Is it really streamlining? Or simply diluting? These questions should be answered through good-faith dialogue. Fortunately, Wilson now seems ready to participate in that process.

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