San Bernardino County, one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation, will be forced to measure how much it contributes to global warming and set targets to begin cutting its greenhouse gas emissions in the next 2 1/2 years, according to a legal settlement announced Tuesday.
The case, brought by Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, had opened a new front in the battle against climate change, which has so far been dominated by efforts to regulate power plants, industrial factories and vehicle tailpipe emissions.
Counties across California are grappling -- some voluntarily and others reluctantly -- with the realization that local decisions about where to allow new subdivisions and roads, and how buildings are constructed, are factors in the climate changes that are depleting the water supply, fueling forest fires and amplifying air pollution in the state.
"Sprawl is something that hasn't been thought about," Brown said. "I see a grass-roots movement building to deal with global warming and oil dependency."
Brown said that the settlement with San Bernardino County, which is expected to grow by 500,000 people by 2030, "sets the pace for how local government can adopt powerful measures to combat oil dependency and climate disruption."
County officials expressed relief that their long-term growth plan, adopted in March, would remain in effect under the settlement, although it would be amended to include global warming provisions by early 2010.
"We certainly weren't pleased by the lawsuit," said Supervisor Gary Ovitt, contending that the settlement only requires "reasonable requests we would have done otherwise."
Ovitt acknowledged, however, that the county could make improvements in several areas suggested by Brown, including regional transportation centers, energy-efficient building designs, methane recovery in landfills and wastewater treatment plants to create electricity.
"Improving those areas will decrease our dependence on fossil fuels," Ovitt added.
San Bernardino County, famous for its sprawling subdivisions, currently generates about 10 trips per household per day, and more than 84% of the work trips are made by vehicle. It needs "elegant density, with people living closer to where they work," Brown said. "This could be a very difficult shift."
The attorney general argues that California's 1970 Environmental Quality Act, which has traditionally addressed the air and water pollution effects of development, also covers carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
His lawsuit had raised the ire of local officials, builders and industry groups. And Republicans in the Legislature, outraged by Brown's aggressive stance, had blocked passage of the state budget, demanding that the Environmental Quality Act be exempt from regulating global warming. In a compromise Tuesday, lawmakers agreed that by 2010, new rules would be adopted spelling out how to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions of projects covered by the law.
"I hope we don't need more lawsuits," Brown said at a Los Angeles news conference Tuesday.
He has already sent stern letters to officials in 11 other counties, including San Diego and Orange, on their duty to reduce greenhouse gases. "I intend to go throughout the state to encourage adoption of similar agreements," he said.
As part of the San Bernardino County settlement, Brown pledged to help raise $500,000 in state or federal funding to implement the measures.
The settlement applies only to unincorporated areas of the county and to government operations, not to the county's fast-growing cities.
And it does not affect a parallel lawsuit by environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. That lawsuit also seeks to force the county to keep new homes out of the path of wildfires and take concrete measures to decrease sprawl and protect wildlife.
Jonathan Evans, the groups' attorney, praised the settlement, "considering the county was willfully avoiding steps to plan for global warming."
But, he added, "it will be critical to assure that this is a plan with action, not just a wish list. San Bernardino is notorious for adopting goals that sound good on paper but result in little on-the-ground benefit."
Brown, however, insisted, "There is real teeth in this agreement."
Times staff writers Jonathan Abrams and Sara Lin contributed to this report.