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No Dirty-Air Armistice

November 29, 2003

Air districts in California could have collected fees on big construction projects for years, using the money to clean up pollution. Under pressure from developers, though, they haven't used that power, depriving themselves and the public of money that could go toward everything from cleaner transportation to more trees.

That is about to change in the San Joaquin Valley, with its rapidly worsening air pollution. A new law will at last force local authorities to take action. This measure joins a couple of other recent moves to recognize, a little late in the game, that mega-developments affect far more than the immediate neighborhood and that developers should play a role in helping resolve sprawl-related issues of traffic, water, pollution and wildlife.

Two years ago, a new state law required builders of 500 houses or more to show that an adequate water supply existed for those households. Early this year, Riverside County imposed a $6,650-per-home fee on developers to fund regional road construction and last summer proposed raising those fees in order to preserve wilderness areas. In exchange, the county is offering developers a quicker permit process that could save them considerable money.

State Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) took a similarly balanced approach with his recently passed law, which forces the San Joaquin air district to set up a system of developer fees to combat air pollution. The building industry generally has accepted the idea that some kind of fee is coming but worries about how high the costs be and understandably wants some assurances the money will be used wisely.

Florez also has been assuring them that they won't be scapegoats for all of the region's dirty air. Agriculture, which contributes a quarter of the valley's air pollution, lost its exemptions from clean-air laws in a related Florez bill. The senator wants to assess fees on existing development as well; new residents and businesses aren't the only ones who pollute. And he wants to set up a system in which developers pay substantially lower fees if they build environment-friendly projects with, for instance, bike paths or tree plantings.

Air officials and builders in California are watching with interest. If the San Joaquin Valley sets up and operates a successful, equitable system in which everyone contributes and everyone gains, other regions with dire pollution problems will want to use the model.

A judge recently ruled that Imperial Valley's choked air stems from local pollution sources, not from Mexican industry -- which means the air-cleaning job needs to be done on this side of the border. Statewide smog-fighting programs have been cut back for lack of funds just as the Los Angeles area -- where the air is dirtier than in the San Joaquin Valley -- last July recorded its first Stage 1 smog alert in five years. The number of days in which L.A. had unhealthful levels of ozone fell for two decades but recently has been creeping up again. The fight for breathable air is far from over.

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