Once at the forefront of the so-called smart-growth movement, California has been sitting on the sidelines for years, thanks to a state planning agency that has no control over local land-use decisions.
Now, Gov. Gray Davis is supporting a bill that could propel the state back into the thick of the sprawl war. If passed, the proposal would link state grants to cities to their ability to plan wisely.
Many builders and city officials are resisting, calling the move an affront to local rule.
If passed, the plan would call for communities that abide by a set of growth principles, drafted by the governor's Office of Planning and Research, to get preference for certain funds. Those principles would channel growth into areas that are already developed and away from open land on the outer edges of suburbia.
It's the kind of top-down approach that has been used in controversial efforts to curb sprawl in other states.
"We are attempting to create a carrot, an incentive for cities to adopt model planning practices," said state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), author of the bill, SB 1521.
Planners call it a baby step compared with more radical policies enacted in Oregon and Maryland, but the bill has triggered fierce opposition from local government and real estate lobbyists. Some planners complain that those groups have already managed to poke loopholes in the bill.
The debate highlights the political pitfalls inherent in attempts by state agencies to manage California's explosive growth. It has been such a controversial issue, in fact, that this is the first time the Office of Planning and Research has sponsored a piece of legislation in nearly 20 years.
"In Maryland, cities can't get state money to build a school if they do it in the middle of an agricultural conservation area," said William Fulton, an urban planner and author of books about sprawl in California. "In California they can, and frequently do.
"Everybody in the planning world wishes the state would start using its money to reward good planning."
The bill has yet to define what the planning principles would be, but state officials say they would encourage open space preservation, development near public transportation and neighborhoods designed for walking. Clustered homes in densely populated areas would be favored over low-density developments on the urban fringe.
"Right now, cities put together their land-use plan with little oversight," said Scott Bollens, chairman of urban and regional planning at UC Irvine. "The state makes sure they do it, but there is no substantial review."
That would all change under SB 1521. Yet the bill stops well short of extreme measures like the state-mandated urban growth boundaries of Portland, Ore., where development is off limits in a ring around the city. The idea is to stop sprawl by containing growth to the already-urbanized area.
"We want to help steer the planning process, but we don't want to row the boat," said Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio, who acknowledged that the state has fallen behind in the smart-growth movement. California "doesn't have the reputation of being aggressive in assisting communities to plan smarter," he said. "I think this proposal is significant."
Many local officials are not eager for the assistance. They are particularly wary of any effort by the state to change funding formulas. The animosity is rooted in the early 1990s, when the state took a large chunk of property tax revenue away from cities and directed it to school districts. The state never made up the difference.
"Cities just don't trust any changes the state makes--even those that would help them," Fulton said. "They feel mowed down."
The bill initially called for a model zoning ordinance for cities to enact in order to get preference for the state grants. That approach was abandoned in favor of a set of principles that communities would be encouraged to adopt. Foes say it still boils down to the state trying to force local land-use decisions.
"We believe those kinds of decisions should be left to the locals," said Alex Creel, the California Assn. of Realtors' vice president for government affairs. "Trying to apply the same formula to diverse parts of the state does not seem like a good way to plan development. San Diego is a lot different than Eureka."
The League of California Cities worried that the principles would be too rigid and successfully lobbied to make them more flexible.
"If the state wants to recognize local government planning practices, fine," said Dan Carrigg, legislative representative for the league. "We just want it to do so in a way that cities don't feel their authority is being taken away."
Debate over the proposed law dovetails with consideration of a similar measure in Congress. The Community Character Act, approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last month, would offer financial incentives for states to base their land-use strategy on a model drafted by the federal government.
The American Planning Assn. supports the bill, arguing that planning policies for nearly half of the states are outdated.
Homebuilders have criticized the act as inviting inappropriate interference by the federal government into state affairs. The Bush administration has joined the National Assn. of Homebuilders in opposing the act and voiced its opinion to the group in a strongly worded letter written by Mel Martinez, secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
"The standardization of land-use planning would begin to define what constitutes 'good' growth management decisions," he wrote. "The problem is, of course, that what would be 'good' for one community could be 'bad' for another."