Senator DeSaulnier defends myth of local planning at Town Hall

California State Senator Mark Desaulnier

Senator Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), at his recent Town Hall meeting told communities who believe they are losing local planning control they need not worry. In fact, DeSaulnier insisted that local governments are in charge of the redevelopment process under SB-1. Easy for him to say as DeSaulnier is headed to the next stop of his political career in Washington D.C. next year to replace retiring George Miller. However, the facts show otherwise.

Here’s what DeSaulnier did not tell the audience:

California Senate Bill 1818 (the housing element, which DeSaulnier claims he knows nothing about (sic)) went into effect in 2005. SB-1818 was intended to make it economically feasible for developers to provide up to 25% affordable living space for low and moderate income families primarily in Project Development Areas (PDA’s) where government financing or other subsidies would be provided.

The main vehicle for accomplishing this was providing builders with density bonuses for constructing low income units. This meant exempting builders from having to meet general plan requirements in such areas as parking, setbacks, open space, and increasing height, to enable developers to meet government guidelines.

Since it takes several years to plan, design, award contracts, finance, go through the permit process, and ultimately build, the effects of SB-1818 did not have a major impact with Governor Brown doing away with the State’s Redevelopment program after he was elected to office in 2010.

Currently with SB-1’s almost certain approval in the current legislative session, Redevelopment in California will be resurrected. The ramifications of SB-1818 are now being carefully scrutinized primarily by mid-sized and small cities outside of urban centers such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orange County, San Jose, and other high population, metropolitan areas.

Local Planning is history in California

There is a growing concern in Contra Costa, that, especially in wealthier cities such as Orinda, Lafayette, Danville, and San Ramon, the combination of SB-1 and SB-1818 will destroy the harmony of their communities. It is thought the “One size fits all” approach just does not fit for these affluent, suburban villages who want to maintain local planning control to maintain the character of their towns. As outlined in a report by the American Planning Association and other critics of SB-1818:

  • Cities and counties must grant more concessions reducing development standards depending on the percentage of affordable housing units provided.
  • When land donation is involved, (which is frequently the case in redevelopment projects) at least 40 units must be built on an acre of land.
  • Parking standards for local development can be reduced, especially around transit hubs such as BART which can greatly affect already congested downtown areas. This does not apply just to the density bonus units but the entire project. Guest parking facilities can also be removed at the discretion of developers
  • Cities and Counties cannot impose design review for density bonus projects even if they object to the impacts on their communities.

If and when SB-1 is approved along with its forthcoming combinations with SB-1818, SB-375 and the One Bay Area Plan passed earlier this year by The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), local planning will be rendered virtually impotent to moderate the State of California’s urban planning model.

If cities do not meet the terms of fulfilling their housing quotas mandated by the State of California, the State will come in and do it for them. This threat was discussed at the Lafayette Planning Commission a couple of months ago as an argument against those who opposed the plans to build high density housing in their congested downtown area. The same line of thinking has been repeated in virtually every other community where city planners have used “It’s the law” approach to quiet critics.

While opposition groups in San Rafael, Corte Madera, Orinda, Danville, oppose the One Bay Area Plan, and in some cases are willing to risk the loss of State funding, it is doubtful they will be able to hold back the coming parade of crony development imposed by Sacramento.

Less prosperous communities both in Contra Costa, Marin, and the parts of the South Bay have experienced much the same conclusion but find themselves between a rock and a hard spot in dealing with the demands of the State. Cities must comply with their mandates or risk losing tax revenues needed for their day to day operation survival.

One place to protect local planning and at slow down the process is the judicial system. Recently, a Superior Court in Alameda dismissed a lawsuit brought by Bay Area Citizens that challenged the ability of ABAG and the MTC to impose their will concerning housing and transportation on local communities.

This lawsuit was thrown out but it is certain more legal challenges in the courts will ensue. It should also be considered that courts are normally reluctant to overturn laws that are passed by the legislature.

The best hope for modifying SB-1 and the other laws passed in Sacramento that obliterate local control under the guise of combating carbon foot prints, climate change, social justice, and income redistribution will likely have to be accomplished in the legislature itself. Such change will only come if the Democratic Super Majority is dismantled and Republicans can once again become a legitimate voice for California;s many “non progressive” citizens.

It is these folks who are more interested in job creation and the quality of life for their families as opposed to fulfilling the utopian visions of central planners, who can make a difference. Ultimately, it is up to this middle class to make their feelings known to their elected officials.

Strangely enough, the major obstacles of holding politicians accountable for faulty urban planning are term limits in the legislature. More often than not, legislators who pass laws that adversely affect their constituents, are not around to face angry voters when the full impact of their votes ravage the communities they were supposed to serve.

As a result elected officials cater to lobbyists and special interest groups who provide monetary support as they move up the political ladder in Sacramento. This is why it is more likely State Senators lose their seats via a Federal corruption indictment than an opponent in an election. Just ask Leland Yee, Roderick Wright, and Ronald Calderon, who were all unceremoniously removed from their positions in 2014.

Even with this sad state of affairs in the legislature, the public in general is not interested in participating in urban planning debates. This issue lacks the sex appeal of boutique inconsequential “Nanny laws” politicians spend so much of their time working on.

Until a building or complex rises in their town that lowers property values, increases congestion, blocks their view or creates a law enforcement issue, the “housing element” will not be a major factor when votes are counted.

Unfortunately, when the day comes it might be too late to hold back the destructive tides of progressive social engineering schemes meant to make improvements to society but that only makes things worse. Sb-1818 and SB-1 are just small steps in State’s road to ruin.

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