September 5, 2000 - From the September, 2000 issue

The Legislature's Smart Growth Caucus Shows Promise, But Little Else – For the Moment

The inherently local issues of traffic, housing, and open space that constitute the Smart Growth agenda have worked their way into the spotlight in Sacramento. Joining Phil Angelides' urban investment proposal and Governor Gray Davis's alternative transportation bills, 28 legislators came together this May to form the Assembly's new Smart Growth Caucus. TPR was pleased to speak recently with Chair Patricia Wiggins about the challenges faced so far, and her vision for a successful 2000-01.


Patricia Wiggins

Pat, with growing public concern for quality of life, congestion, and land-use issues, a new caucus was formed this spring in the Legislature-the "Smart Growth Caucus." Could you give our readers an idea of what the compelling reasons were to form this Caucus?

It was an idea that actually "trickled up" to the Legislature. There's a growing concern in California that the continuing trend of sprawl will ultimately have serious detrimental effects on our quality of life.

As 28 legislators who had an interest in various legislative solutions, we came together to support each other. This caucus will look at policies to help us avoid killing the goose that lays the golden egg in California.

And what are the public policies that drive the Caucus' agenda?

First, we must invest in cities so that they don't die. Sprawl usually expands in concentric circles around the urban core; each circle has a lifecycle of approximately 30 years. This pattern has helped to kill the heart of the city-and L.A. is a perfect example of that.

Along with increasing infill development, we're supporting policies to protect our precious agricultural land, open space and natural resources.

The 28 members of the Smart Growth Caucus are not all from urban centers. What's the composition?

What's really exciting is that the Smart Growth movement is crossing not only the Legislature's Committee structure-our members include the chairs of the transportation and housing committees, for example-but also regional boundaries. Members include representatives from Northern, Central and Southern California. And the principles of Smart Growth are relevant in every community.

Gil Cedillo-who represents the heart of Los Angeles-has recently brought forth legislation to aid in Downtown's revitalization. Despite the legislation's focus on L.A., the premise of infill aides us in saving agricultural land. So while Northern and Southern California are often pitted against each other, this Caucus actually encourages us to work together.

What are some of the other legislative bills that the Caucus and its members are involved in advancing?

Sen. Jack O'Connell's bill for a 55-percent tax credit to stimulate the protection of open space habitat and agricultural lands has already been signed into law.

Susan Davis sponsored a bill for the protection of California's remaining wetlands, which is awaiting the Governor's signature.

Sen. Byron Sher sponsored a bill aimed at strengthening existing communities, minimizing pollution and preserving open space and agricultural lands through targeting State infrastructure investments.

And I have a bill that encourages voluntary collaboration between counties and cities for planning purposes. So the legislation we're pushing crosses many boundaries.

Pat, you have carried legislation to link school facilities construction with city land-use planning. Why?

Unfortunately, my bill was killed. But I'm planning to bring it back.

It surfaced as a result of the long-standing tug of war between cities and school districts. In my district, a school was sited without any collaboration between the developer and the city, and that case ultimately ended in a student getting killed because there was no safe linkage between the school and where people live. It's very important that we get this worked out between local governments and school districts, and I'm going to try again next year.

Smart Growth clearly seems to mean a lot of different things to different people. At the moment, however, the Smart Growth Caucus is comprised solely of Democrats. Republicans accuse the Caucus of having a "no-growth" agenda. Why no Republicans? And how do you explain the opposition to the Smart Growth agenda?

The simple answer is that many Republicans believe that Smart Growth equals No Growth. And that simply isn't true. In fact, the Smart Growth Caucus accepts the growth estimates projected by the Department of Finance. Our agenda is about accommodating growth in a smart way.

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There are some Republicans I'm planning to reach out to, so perhaps 2001 will see a more bipartisan caucus.

Let's turn to Governor Davis and his thoughts on planning and land-use. He signed several bills this year to further parts of the Smart Growth agenda with respect to his transportation and budget plans. But is he aligned with your Caucus' agenda?

Regional issues have a different connotation now because they're becoming better understood. Some of Gov. Davis' constituents-high tech industries, for example-are very interested in this because they want to improve quality of life for their employees.

So now, the pressure is not only coming from environmentalists, but from an economic interest in ensuring the State grows in a sensible fashion. The pressure to support Smart Growth is coming from many directions-from Silicon Valley to L.A.- and the Governor is no fool. He's going to be very aware and a part of this evolution.

In June, our local public radio aired a roundtable about California's water supply. In it, Randy Kanouse from the East Bay Municipal District said, "It's simply putting our existing residents and businesses at too great a risk to give the green light on homes going forward without making substantial progress on where the water will come from." The countering view was given by Resources Secretary Mary Nichols who said, "It really isn't the burden of the individual project to develop or to secure the water supply for the future of California. This is the obligation that falls on government agencies, water districts and local governments all working together." What, in your opinion, is the proper relationship between water supply and new development in California?

Sheila Kuehl's bill states that in order for a development over a specific size to be approved, the community needs to ensure adequate water supply. This is basic planning. It starts at the local level but ties into the State level where water supply projects are actually set up.

These two issues simply can't be separated. How can you allow an area to develop without investigating the future water supply?

Kuehl's bill did not pass this year, but it certainly got the debate moving. If we're going to accommodate this immense projected growth, we can't put our heads in the sand about where the water is going to come from. We should not throw people out into areas where there isn't going to be an adequate water supply, and then say we'll figure that out later.

There appear to be two impediments to achieving the present agenda being advocated by the Caucus. The first is the state-local fiscal challenge for cities who depend on sales tax revenues to fund their necessary services. Without a change in this fiscal relationship with local government, can we expect to have Smart Growth?

It will be impaired without solving the fiscal problems-there's no question about that. Working with local government financing is key. Hopefully Speaker Emeritus Villaraigosa's study on the financing of local government will flush this out.

Unfortunately, in this past session the Legislature was not ready to bite the bullet and recommend changes to reform the State-local fiscal relationship. But I intend to make this a top priority next session as the Chair of the Assembly Local Government Committee.

The second impediment may be the absence of regional authorities for growth management. In July's TPR, Nick Bollman, President of the California Center for Regional Leadership, said: "California's economy, ecology and social relations increasingly organize themselves on a regional basis, but government and its jurisdictions are out of alignment with these self organizing regional systems." Do you see any movement in terms of government structures to give our regions the capacity to manage land-use and infrastructure planning?

That's one of the main issues we're facing-encouraging regional collaboration despite the State's departmentalized nature. The collaboration needs to be voluntary, but I think we're going to need some sticks as well.

Take the issue of affordable housing for instance-the State should be encouraging more multifamily units and housing workers in communities close to where they are employed. But it probably won't be welcomed locally because it's hard for local elected officials to step up to the plate when they're being hounded by neighborhoods saying, "Not in my Backyard."

Pat, let's close with this: How, in the coming years, might we best judge the success of the Smart Growth Caucus? In other words, what exactly would constitute legislative success?

There are two things. One would be that the State and the locals are in sync-and that's already starting to happen. The Legislature is beginning to reflect the concerns of people at the local level regarding how California is going to grow.

And a second measure of success would be finding a way to plan effectively for growth without being willy-nilly. I'm confident we'll make progress because of the amount of legislative proposals that are coming forward. The test ultimately will be: Do we have policies in place so that communities can grow and develop in ways that 1) make sense economically, 2) preserve our resources, and 3) enhance our quality of life? If we don't do that, then we won't have accomplished anything.

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