In this critical commentary on the planning process, Dan Silver, coordinator of the Endangered Habitats League and member of the General Plan Advisory Committees in Riverside and San Diego Counties, outlines how general plans and the constant amendments to them thwart sustainable development. He calls for a moratorium on such amendments until the L.A. County General Plan update replaces the current peicemeal approach by planning comprehensively for future development.
By: Dan Silver, MD
The Environmental Impact Report for the Newhall Ranch project-tens of thousands of houses along the Santa Clara River-has been decertified by the courts. Underlying the dispute are decades of failed planning, pitting housing accommodation against the few remaining rural landscapes left in Los Angeles County. With "smart growth" currently being embraced by environmentalists and builders alike, elected officials should be demanding new thinking which takes advantage of this opportunity for conflict resolution.
Historically, there has been little which merits the term "planning" in unincorporated Southern California (Ventura County being an exception due to policies directing growth to cities). To a much larger extent, public and private investment should have gone to areas needing revitalization, to infill, to support transit, and to where infrastructure and emergency services could have been most efficiently provided. There should have been far less encroachment into agricultural and natural lands. Because Los Angeles and other counties welcomed sprawl, downtowns and older suburbs were abandoned for the greenfields on the fringe-at enormous social and environmental cost.
Public frustration with the absence of good planning has resulted in ballot box zoning, which removes authority from elected officials who have not taken their obligations to plan for the future seriously enough. This frustration finds its roots in a process which ensures that integration of land use with transportation and ecosystem protection never occurs.
"Non-planning" is evident at the most basic levels. When the Southern California Assoc. of Governments makes regional housing allocations, anticipated population increase is distributed to jurisdictions largely on the basis of past trends. Local general plans are therefore encouraged to continue to concentrate low income housing where it already is, and to continue to sprawl elsewhere. The allocations, which are legally important, become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
General plans themselves are corrupted by the wholesale substitution of speculative land use designations for present uses. At the behest of landowners and developers, large areas in farming or ranching are, like the acts of a wanton and vengeful god, designated for residential use, albeit at low density. The checkerboard parcelization thus allowed is incompatible with the actual agricultural use or with habitat and aesthetic values. Following this "original sin," expectations of development and speculation are rampant. The result is either subdivision to highly inefficient estate lots, or the piecemeal General Plan amendment.
Piecemeal General Plan amendments are ubiquitous in Southern California and are the mechanism by which low density designations convert to suburban sprawl. They are, like Newhall Ranch, landowner-driven rather than planning-driven. By the time the public receives notice that environmental review will commence, a project will have been cleared with the relevant political offices and is, for practical purposes, a "done deal." If Planning Departments simply process permits rather than recommend how and where new development occurs, what passes for "planning" becomes little else but the minting of money by local government for the real estate sector, as successive levels of entitlement are requested, granted, bought, and sold.
Piecemeal General Plan amendments in the unincorporated area obviously preclude respecting the annexation process and limiting development to municipalities. (For counties to leave the business of running cities to cities would be too logical.) But they effectively preclude long-term, comprehensive planning of any sort. Is it any wonder that people drive 2 hours to work in order to live in a house they can afford? Or that large amounts of urban land are severely underutilized? Or that species are endangered? Or that the quality of older communities plummets, including the quality of education?
The L.A. County General Plan Update, now underway, is the appropriate venue for a new approach:
• Inventory available/suitable land within the County and its cities.
• Direct new growth to existing urban areas where infrastructure already exists.
• Plan an integrated transportation system which creates a regional transit framework and fosters compact urban development.
• Overhaul existing standards to permit and encourage increased densities, mixed uses, and "livable" communities.
• Locate as many activities as possible within walking distance of transit.
• Expand the diversity of housing choices within communities.
• Permanently protect important landscapes, including open space, natural resources, and agricultural lands.
• Adopt growth boundaries beyond which urban services shall not be provided, along with periodic reassessment.
If the Newhall Ranch project had been the result of such a comprehensive analysis, perhaps it would be possible to justify housing tracts sited on important agricultural lands, blighting the scenery of the Santa Clara River, in the midst of sensitive habitat, in conflict with vital aquifers, and dependent upon already congested freeways.
Until the County has a game plan for the future, a moratorium on General Plan amendments is necessary, so the County does not shoot itself in the foot before the Update is complete. The moratorium will bring developers to the table, and signal to the public that elected officials are taking their responsibility to plan for the future seriously.