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Slowing the Bulldozers

June 08, 2002

Drive 50 miles from downtown Los Angeles on most major roads or freeways and you'll spend an hour--or two or three--immersed in the monotonous, big-box exurban ugliness that has replaced the orange groves and chaparral-covered hills of just a few decades back.

City and county general plans should have been the keys to more sensible growth in California. The plans specify where developers can erect Wal-Marts or apartment buildings, where cities put libraries and where school districts build high schools. Ideally, they contain sprawl, create communities where people can walk to the grocery store and provide adequate services for residents. Most plans, however, fail on all counts.

County supervisors and city council members resist any attempt by the state to infringe on their power to play red light-green light with new Costcos, auto malls and look-alike housing tracts.

Even when communities draw up sensible growth plans to guide their elected representatives and the bureaucrats they appoint, developers and business interests often cajole their way to exemptions.

Today, some smart communities have endorsed "smart" growth, as opposed to the old no- or slow-growth strategies. But most California communities still suffer from thoughtless growth or just plain dumb growth.

That would change if the Legislature approved Senate Bill 1521 by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), a measure sponsored by the Davis administration to modestly toughen the state's hand in guiding how cities and counties grow. The measure passed the Senate in late May. It awaits an Assembly hearing.

The building industry and real estate interests oppose the bill and local governments have balked, complaining that what might be good for San Diego would not necessarily work in Fresno or along the Central Coast.

As watered down to assuage these forces, SB 1521 merely requires the state to offer, at the start of 2004, a model of "planning practices and policies" that promote walkable neighborhoods, public transit, the redevelopment of inner cities and old suburbs, protection of open space and farmland, and housing for all income groups.

Soft as the bill is now, local governments want it even weaker. This is shortsighted. California is expected to grow by 24 million residents in the next 40 years. Which leads to a paradox: If the state continues to let influential builders bulldoze what's left of the landscape for endlessly sprawling subdivisions and the copycat shopping centers, mini-malls and gridlocked freeways to serve them, who'll want to live here?

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