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Green growth

A groundbreaking bill would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by limiting sprawl.

August 28, 2008

The number of miles Californians drive is growing almost twice as fast as the state's population, as housing developments sprout farther and farther from commercial centers. Not only does this urban sprawl put upward pressure on gasoline prices, it creates freeway gridlock, worsens air pollution and makes fighting global warming next to impossible. California lawmakers have tried and failed for decades to bring sprawl under control, but they may finally be on the verge of success.

SB 375 from Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who last week was elected the next president pro tem of the state Senate, marks the first time any state has attempted to tie greenhouse gas reduction to transportation funding and regional land-use planning. The bill's details are complex -- primarily because in the two years Steinberg has been trying to get it through the Legislature, he has rewritten it five times in an attempt to overcome opposition from builders and municipal governments -- but its main thrust is to provide incentives for regional planners to impose "smart growth." That means building denser housing close to urban centers and public transportation corridors, so people don't have to commute as far.

The bill has the backing of environmental groups, builders and municipal governments. It's opposed by some California business groups and many Republican lawmakers, who claim that it would limit choices for consumers who would rather live in suburban ranch houses than urban condominiums. They couldn't be more wrong. The bill wouldn't eliminate suburbs or do away with single-family homes with big backyards, but it would provide more choices for people who are forced to live far from their workplaces because they can't afford a home in the city.

It would do this by directing metropolitan planning organizations (there are 17 in California, including the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which covers Los Angeles and five surrounding counties) to meet targets set by state air regulators to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To hit these targets, they would have to draw up transportation and land-use plans that encourage smart growth. Local governments could still approve any new development they wanted, but those meeting the regional group's smart-growth seal of approval would be first in line for state transportation funds and be exempt from a lot of regulatory red tape.

The bill has been passed by both houses of the Legislature and now awaits a housekeeping vote in the Senate. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should sign it once it lands on his desk.

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