The General Plan community participation process that Pasadena is currently undergoing for revision of the housing element is affected by some new ground rules signed into law in recent years. Legislation passed in Sacramento, AB 32 and SB 375, is based upon the concept that regional coordination of transportation and its related housing densities is necessary to combat the pollution and energy consumption generated by urban sprawl, which has been the primary engine of California development and GDP production since the postwar era. It recognizes that sprawl is unsustainable, particularly since the counties aren't able to maintain the infrastructure in rural and outlying areas. Hence the strategy of this legislation, which is to assign the majority of growth and development to urban areas, using "transportation" as the rationale for higher densities. This "fair share" housing allocation plan will focus new development in Transit Priority Areas and near employment centers within the transportation network, and give regional planning priority over local control.
It shifts the old process of General Plans which cities used to plan for future growth, as the City of Santa Barbara noted in its March 2008 letter of objection to its SCAG Board of Directors (Southern California Association of Governments.) The problem was that the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) created a requirement for housing that was nearly 150% of the city's existing General Plan capacity. That is because the method of calculating the housing requirements has been revised to substantially increase the necessary housing using a growth forecast method developed by the State called the Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS). This is outlined on the State's Housing and Community Development website, which develops this number in consultation with SCAG.
The SCS mandates that local governments must complete housing elements within 18 months after receiving their housing allocation and states that local governments have three years to complete rezoning of sites to be consistent with the designations in the housing element. It also determines that a court can compel local governments to complete the rezoning if the statutory deadline is not met; if the rezoning is not completed, there are new restrictions on its power to deny or condition affordable housing projects. It's rather draconian in that respect; a BIA profit-driven strategy, not one that accommodates actual needs in the communities or the infrastructure capacity available, such as power, water and sewer capacities that were previously a critical factor in the city General Plans. In effect, it disconnects these General Plan elements and creates further development issues in that commercial development is generally not capped because of the revenue it creates, yet it generates traffic issues and demands more power, water, and additional housing support. All this without identifying the concurrent balance of local resources required to support this growth.
The inability of local entities to support this growth is deleted from the planning process via SB 375, which provides the development community with the tools at the regional level to build out beyond all resources in order to produce profit as well as create the fiscal assets which can then be sold by Wall Street in its continuing saga of selling toxic assets. Communities are now captive to the Federal mandate created by the large banks to provide more investment product on the global market to keep the U.S. dollar and Federal Deficit funding at target levels.
Let's step back a moment and look at the State's overall picture. California's economy is all about construction, driven by real estate development. There's large investment leverage on about 25% of a $1.85 trillion economy. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, California is responsible for 13% of the United States' gross domestic product (GDP). This means that our ground-zero 2008 implosion of the housing and mortgage markets have left a very large hole that the building industry is seeking to fill with development that is able to attract financing from the government and the private sector due to its legislated existence, backed by whatever credibility is left of Sacramento Fiscal Bond sales, federal funding and debt payment structures. It uses the vehicle of transportation and infrastructure repair and expansion to tie development requirements in order to obtain this funding. Whether the market is actually there (during record unemployment) for this housing is left to the "Field of Dreams."
Since the state's cash flow has been decimated by the Prop 13 loss in property tax revenues, local development revenue and taxes have taken a front seat in City revenue streams. Cities rely more and more on development and developer fees to provide basic services, and so are essentially railroaded into constant development in order to pay the bills. This is why California is in this predicament today. Unfortunately, the State's strategy for more density and development doesn't solve the problem, and reduces the quality of life for its residents, while depleting remaining resources. This disconnect of development versus resource consumption is a far bigger problem than the transit and pollution issues this legislation is supposed to solve. Water conservation is a non-issue, despite legislation authored by Sheila Kuehl in the State Senate (SB 221) signed into law in Oct 2001 to keep the practice of "paper water" over-allocation which has grown to eight times the amount of actual available water supplies.
Cities that have tried to fight these RHNA allocations in court, such as Irvine's lawsuit against SCAG allocations, have not found the courts to be supportive. The Fourth Appellate District recently held that courts have no jurisdiction to review the propriety of a municipality's RHNA allocation. To cite attorney Katherine Hart: The Court of Appeals reasoned that RHNA statutes reflect a clear intent to vest HCD and respective COGs with the authority to set the RHNA allocation for each local government ... The nature and scope of a General Plan's housing element and the length and intricacy of the process created to determine a municipality's RHNA allocation reflects a clear intent on the part of the Legislature to render this process immune from judicial intervention."
So the local communities and cities do not have much recourse with respect to the impact of the RHNA numbers on their General Plans. While in theory there is a process to contest the SCS projections early in the process, which triggers a regional reallocation if a community is successful in rebutting a particular growth projection, it isn't going to happen under SCAG because all the communities would then reject these projections. The only recourse would appear to be to challenge the basis of the growth numbers themselves, which are based upon a thesis prepared by USC's Population Dynamics Research Group. This group has been retained by Sacramento to generate these projections based upon historic data and some interesting assumptions. They deny the Federal Census Bureau's contention that there has been a strong outflow of people from California during the past decade, but the state Department of Finance's demographic unit disputes that position, and the conflict presumably will be resolved by the 2010 census (this from the Sacramento Bee.)
As it stands right now, the impact of this on Pasadena's General Plan remains to be seen, but it is critical during the public participation process that residents insist that the growth impacts be accounted for in the update process for Land Use, Mobility and Open Space/Conservation. It is important that the integrity of all the General Plan elements is maintained; it must be fiscally responsible, and especially, environmentally sound. If the impact of traffic and growth is not in alignment with the stated goals of reducing Pasadena's carbon footprint (and that includes all impacts on the environment), then it is open for renegotiation. That is supposedly the basis of SB 375 and the transit and redevelopment funding that is attached to it.