Preserving the quality of life through Smart Growth

by Assemblyman Howard Wayne

n recent years California has been faced with challenges in education and in health care. We have responded with class size reduction, a major statewide school bond, expansion of the healthy families program and HMO reform. The next crisis we will face will be growth. By 2020 there will be between 15 million and 20 million more Californians, and by 2040 our population is expected to nearly double. When this happens, will our cities be livable? Will our open space be transformed into tract housing? How can we accommodate growth without degrading the quality of life?

Based on experience, the answers to those questions are not encouraging. A lack of affordable housing in our major cities causes working people to travel long distances from their homes to their jobs. Many face traffic congestion resulting in loss of time with family or other activities. Eighty percent of the state's population is exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution resulting primarily from the high-pollution volume of vehicle commuting. We have learned we cannot build our way out of congestion.

From 1970 to 1990, the income of Californians increased 285 percent. But in that same time, rents increased 392 percent and home prices rose 746 percent. Is it any wonder California has one of the lowest rates of home ownership in the country, and a deficit of 650,000 affordable homes in our seven largest cities?

Meanwhile, as people move further and further out, housing developments devour open space and farmland. With longer distances between home and work, the cost of extending infrastructure becomes overwhelming. That is because capital costs for streets, utilities and schools for low density noncontiguous development is double the cost per dwelling unit of developments located close to central facilities and employment centers.

Further exacerbating the dispersal of population is that between five and ten percent of cities, some 250,000 to 500,000 acres, consists of empty lots and abandoned buildings, many of which suffer from contamination. The failure to deal with these sites, usually referred to as brownfields, means these city lands are not available for business or housing. Instead, development is pushed into the "greenfields" of agricultural lands and open space.

At the heart of this problem is the balkanized way we plan growth. Each city reaches land-use decisions as though operating in a vacuum. Cities have the ability to capture the economic benefits of development decisions while sloughing off the costs to nearby areas, which are forced to bear more traffic, noise, and housing demands. Local government financing methods make the situation worse. Cities decline to accommodate affordable housing because the property tax it generates is inadequate to cover the cost of services the residents demand. Instead, cities pursue the sales tax cash register of retail businesses.

Industry, unlike local government, has a regional orientation. High tech companies are in Silicon Valley -- a region, not a city. Agriculture is in the Central Valley -- a region, not a city. These industries don't affect just a single town. Why, then, does government act as though decisions made by individual cities affect just those cities?

No one is suggesting that land-use decisions should be transferred to the state government. Land use is inherently a local decision. Nevertheless, California should provide guidelines on how to plan growth. To make these guidelines meaningful, state government should provide incentives to regions that intelligently plan their growth by focusing development into existing communities. Cities which do not do so should be told not to count on the state to finance public investments.

Maryland provides an example. The state passed a Rural Legacy bond to make open space and farmland preservation money available to smart growth counties. Its governor, Parris Glendening, has articulated the message: "For development outside [planned growth] areas, we are saying 'Sorry, the state will not help out. If you build out there then you pay for roads, water and sewage, schools, parks and other developments. If you invest in existing communities you will have access to tax credits, grants, low-interest loans and other incentives.'"

State Senator Steve Peace has proposed a mechanism for coordinating regional transportation, because the existing diffusion of transportation authority simply does not work. His Regional Infrastructure Transportation Agency would merge functions of five governmental bodies with authority over transportation into one entity responsible to the San Diego County area. Driving on the interstates during commuting hours is an example of how ineffectual current transportation planning has been. I support Senator Peace's Regional Infrastructure Transportation Agency concept.

Growth is going to happen. California is at a fork in the road as to how it will deal with growth. It can continue along its present path and face the deterioration of central cities and older suburbs or it can begin to think about infrastructure in terms of how we want California to look. The choice is ours.