Tag Archives: Land Use

The Fires, The Budget, And Climate Change

I’ve been reading my Altadena blog and LA Now, and I see that firefighters are making progress on the spate of blazes, and apparently saved Mount Wilson, though it’s still in some danger.  This will continue for at least a week, at which point the firefighting emergency fund will be almost completely exhausted.

These are not “unpredictable” costs.  We now have practically a year-round fire season, with damaging blazes cropping up in places where we never saw them before.  And people die from bad budget choices relating to public safety.

There was a provision in the budget deal to have those living in areas most affected by fire hazards pay a fee on their homeowner’s insurance to fund firefighting efforts that save their residences.  Republicans blocked them, as they have been doing for years.  As a result we all pay the price in the long term, somehow in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”  We’re essentially offering welfare for those who choose to live in danger zones.

Which leads us to the reason why these fires have continued to occur, and in greater numbers, year after year.  It’s attributable to global warming, and as much as reactionaries and climate denialists hide their heads in the sand about it, the truth remains the same.

Roughly speaking, it turns out that land use issues are probably responsible for about half of the increase in western wildfire activity over the past few decades and climate change is responsible for the other half.  The mechanism is pretty straightforward: higher temperatures lead to both reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas and an earlier melt, which in turn produces a longer and drier fire season.  Result: more and bigger fires.  Plus there’s this, from CAP’s Tom Kenworthy:

In recent years, a widespread and so far unchecked epidemic of mountain pine beetles that has killed millions of acres of trees from Colorado north into Canada has laid the foundation for a potentially large increase in catastrophic fires. Climate change has played a role in that outbreak, too, as warmer winters spare the beetles from low temperatures that would normally kill them off, and drought stresses trees.

In the western United States, mountain pine beetles have killed some 6.5 million acres of forest, according to the Associated Press. As large as that path of destruction is, it’s dwarfed by the 35 million acres killed in British Columbia, which has experienced a rash of forest fires this summer that as of early this month had burned more than 155,000 acres. In the United States to date about 5.2 million acres – an area larger than Massachusetts  -have burned this year.

Destruction of trees by the mountain pine beetle, combined with climate change and fire, makes for a dangerous feedback loop. Dead forests sequester less carbon dioxide. Burning forests release lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. More carbon dioxide adds to climate change, which raises temperatures, stresses forests, and makes more and bigger fires more likely.

Some would say that the possibility that forest fires like this are caused by human error contradicts this case, but actually, no.  Dry forest areas are simply more susceptible to a lit cigarette or a spark from an electrical device, and that’s due to hotter temperatures and less rain.

We can choose to find other factors for these events, and we can choose to charge everyone for living in places where nobody should.  But that’s a choice, made in budgets and made in lifestyle.  It’s a choice that’s harming our planet, draining our budgets and killing our people.

We Must Change The Way We Live

In the 1930s two crises hit the Great Plains at once – 50 years of overfarming marginal lands had destroyed the topsoil and created what we know as the Dust Bowl, and at least twenty years of economic pressure to overfarm (to pay debts and make up for collapsed prices) had created an untenable financial situation for the farmers. Either one was going to end in disaster – the land would give out or the overuse of credit would end in deflation and ruin. As it happened, the crises both occurred at exactly the same time, producing a social catastrophe from which several states have still not recovered.

California now faces the same problem. For 60 years we have based our economy on the production and consumption of sprawl. This worked well enough until the late 1970s, when those who had prospered the most from this model decided to stop reinvesting profits in the state and in society, and took their ball and went home. The next 30 years were dominated by even more sprawl, financed by massive amounts of debt and by eating the state’s seed corn by slashing the government programs that built prosperity in the first place.

This was always bound to end in disaster, and as we are well aware, that disaster – in the form of economic depression and government bankruptcy – is now here. But the massive sprawlconomy binge had another set of costs whose bill is now coming due – water.

California had an unusually wet 20th century, and we exploited that to the fullest. To have a society built on sprawl and consumption, we needed to siphon as much water as possible to give not just to the new housing developments, but to the sprawling farms. Sprawl is a farming phenomenon as well – wasting land and water resources on resource-intensive crops grown to enrich shareholders, instead of sensibly using land and water to grow crops for subsistence and food security. California was in a water bubble, just as the state was experiencing a financial bubble. We have been living well beyond our means.

Ultimately the water bubble was going to burst. And just as in the 1930s Great Plains, it is bursting at the same moment as the economic bubble. For the least year or so you could drive down the backroads of the Salinas Valley, Salad Bowl Of The World, and see shuttered warehouses and laid off packing workers.

Now that water is less available the agricultural recession is shifting into higher gear. The highest unemployment rates in California are in our agricultural counties – 22.6% in Imperial, 14.3% in Tulare, 13.7% here in Monterey County. (Note: those stats are for nonfarm jobs, and yet the correlation between ag and the rest of the county economy is obviously very strong.)

The water crisis is now about to come to the rest of California. Sitting here in Monterey, in summer-like weather in January, I am inclined to believe the claims that this is the worst drought ever in the state’s recorded history:

California teeters on the edge of the worst drought in the state’s history, officials said Thursday after reporting that the Sierra Nevada snowpack – the backbone of the state’s water supply – is only 61 percent of normal.

January usually douses California with about 20 percent of the state’s annual precipitation, but instead it delivered a string of dry, sunny days this year, almost certainly pushing the state into a third year of drought.

The drought exacerbates the problems caused by our overuse of water resources. To prevent a total environmental collapse in the Delta massive reductions of water flows will be required. And for those of us who live in counties that don’t get our water from the Delta – places like Sonoma, Marin, and Monterey – the situation is going to be worse. Water managers in those counties are planning to 50% cutbacks in urban water use, which is an amount that will dramatically change how we live. We could let every lawn die and stop hosing down every driveway and still not get anywhere close to 50% reductions.

The Monterey Peninsula has been under Stage 1 water rationing for ten years now. You rarely see water wasted here, and new development has been at a standstill (how many towns have vacant lots and abandoned homes within a mile of the beach as we do?). But a 50% cut will force dramatic changes in how we live, as it will around the state.

Those changes ARE coming. There is no way around the fact that the way California was organized in the 20th century – politically, economically, and especially in terms of our land use and water use – is over. Done. Gone.

The question for us now is will we try to actively transition California to a more sustainable future? Or will we do nothing and let the chips fall where they may? The first option at least allows us a chance of rebuilding widely shared prosperity by funding local food, sustainable farming, and urban density. The latter would produce widespread immiseration while allowing a small aristocratic elite to enjoy a semblance of the 20th century lifestyle.

The choice is up to us.

Embracing California’s Urban Future

Dan Walters has an interesting column in today’s SacBee on SB 375 and the shift away from sprawl. His argument is that it may be the landmark moment in a shift away from locally-controlled land use policies favoring sprawl toward state-controlled policies favoring density – but that this could cause a political backlash.

He’s not entirely wrong about this, but neither is he entirely right. Before we assess land use policy and its utterly central role in California politics we need to understand just what it is we’re talking about – otherwise our political actions may wind up changing little.

Walters writes:

Although critics frequently denounced the model as wasteful and inefficient “sprawl” that encouraged cultural and racial segregation, it appealed to newcomers because it offered opportunity to acquire real estate they could call their own.

Cultural and racial segregation were important factors in the production of sprawl. Many who moved there already owned property in the urban cores. It’s not that they needed property of their own – but that they wanted a community of “their own” – as in white and middle class. If segregation wasn’t so central to the suburban project then why were so many suburban developments off-limits to people of color? Why did Californians reject Prop 14 in 1964, which would have outlawed the continued segregation of the suburbs?

The derisive term “sprawl” was really just “a decentralized community” in the words of Mark Pisano, who headed the Southern California Association of Governments, a regional planning agency, for three decades – or so he said in the mid-1980s. “This is the way people want their community,” Pisano was quoted in a 1986 book about California development patterns. “The individual’s mobility and freedom is where people want to go.”

This is the Tom McClintock fiction of suburban life. In fact suburbia has very little freedom of mobility. Suburbs like those in Orange County, where I was born and raised, are car-only. For decades they actively resisted providing mobility choices. Bikes and pedestrians were discouraged. Rail was flatly rejected, and even though dozens of passenger trains now ply OC’s rails they recently killed a light rail project. There is no mobility freedom in California suburbs – only the tyranny of the car.

And those actions were the result of deliberate governmental choices, including on the state level. Even at a time when everybody and their brother knows we need to provide more mass transit, Sacramento politicians continue to gut the transit budget.

Walters goes on to paint a picture of cities making local decisions outside state guidelines:

The state could have theoretically affected land use by wielding its latent power, such as control of transportation projects and water supplies. Local officials, however, guarded land use authority jealously, not only for financial reasons, but because their voters wanted to control their communities’ socioeconomic ambience. And with the exception of coastal development, the state largely left land use alone.

This is not entirely true. California has not mandated a statewide urban growth management plan the way Washington and Oregon have. But California has greased the skids for sprawl for decades. An important and often overlooked factor in the passage of Prop 13 was a desire to stop Jerry Brown’s urban density program and starve the cities of tax dollars to provide economic opportunity and the resources for urban growth. It gave sprawling suburbs a massive tax break. The state legislature further obliged the suburbs in 1982 by passing the Mello-Roos Act, which allowed developers to pass fees onto buyers for schools – but did nothing for urban school districts.

Walters suggests that Darrell Steinberg’s SB 375, which Arnold signed this week and finally links land use planning to global warming – 38% of California carbon emissions are from transportation, which sprawl helps produce – could lead to a political backlash:

It’s a momentous step, but also one that could create a backlash among cultural traditionalists and create even more political fault lines in an already highly fragmented state.

“Cultural traditionalists?” Sorry Dan. California’s sprawling suburbs aren’t a cultural choice. That’s a myth. They are the product of decades of favorable land use policy.

How else to explain the fact that so many young people from the suburbs – myself included – make a beeline for the urban cores as soon as we are able? Or the desire among many suburbanites for more transportation choices and a less auto-oriented lifestyle? Or the fact that urban property is holding its value while suburban and exurban property values are in free fall?

California’s future is an urban future. Only by encouraging urban density and providing the transit infrastructure to serve it can we have a California Dream for the 21st century – sprawl can no longer provide affordable housing or economic security, and it comes at a massive environmental and climatic cost. Californians are already coming to understand and embrace this future. The only political backlash to worry about is the backlash from the landless millions who demand a dense, sustainable, affordable life in the California of the 21st century.

Amidst the Insane Vetoes, Arnold Revolutionizes Land Use Law

Arnold has been making some rather shocking vetoes of important legislation this week, including a cave-in to Sarah Palin on port air quality and the veto of the anti-rescission bill. On balance his record on bills this week is atrocious.

But there are a few bright spots, including a bill that has the potential to revolutionize land use in California. Arnold has signed Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s SB 375, a bill that links land-use planning to the AB 32 global warming targets. The intent is to eliminate sprawl by limiting sprawl and favoring infill development.

The logic is clear – sprawl creates more auto traffic, and more auto emissions, which worsens global warming. 38% of greenhouse gas emissions in California come from transportation. The obvious solution is to crack down on sprawl and encourage infill development – urban density served by mass transit. SB 375 includes language streamlining CEQA review for infill development that meets carbon emissions reduction goals.

That’s an important element of an anti-sprawl, anti-global warming effort. It’s the Portland model – you can’t stop sprawl merely by limiting growth on the edge of a metro area. You must also encourage infill, dense development and provide the mass transit to serve it.

It’s also vital to California’s economic recovery. As I have argued before, we must redefine the California Dream by using urban density to provide for affordable living and economic security.

There are still some outstanding issues regarding SB 375 – business groups were lobbying to have urban commercial projects given the same CEQA streamlining as residential projects:

Some business groups remained critical because the bill did not allow commercial development to benefit from CEQA changes. And some local officials said it overreached by allowing the state to dictate greenhouse-gas reduction goals for each region.

Steinberg said he promised the governor that next year he will clarify that projects funded by the 2006 voter-approved transportation bonds will be exempt. But Steinberg said he agreed only to have “good-faith” discussions about the commercial development issue.

“The balance we struck was so precarious, we couldn’t pile anything more on top of the bill,” Steinberg said.

California cannot afford sprawl. SB 375 is a big step forward in our efforts to redefine the California Dream and follow Portland’s successful model into a prosperous 21st century future.

Legislative Update

Technically, the session is over in Sacramento, but of course, with no budget, the work will go on.  More on that in a moment, but let’s take a look at the bills that have passed thus far.

Hundreds of bills passed through their respective houses and made their way to the Governor’s desk.  Among those passing:

AB 1945, which cracks down on insurance company rescission policies

• SB 1301, the California DREAM Act, allowing children of illegal immigrants to access financial aid for college

SB 375, a major land use bill that would improve transportation planning and reduce urban sprawl (this is a real coup)

AB 583, the Clean Money pilot project bill that would make the 2014 Secretary of State election a Clean Money race.

UPDATE: More bill passage from the indispensable Frank Russo:

• AB 1830 (Lieu): This is the good version of the subprime mortgage bill that passed in a weaker state earlier this year.

• AB 180 (Bass): Another mortgage bill that seeks to go after predatory lenders and “foreclosure consultants.”

• SB 1440 (Kuehl): This is a big one.  It sets a minimum requirement that insurers spend at least 85% of their premiums on health care.

• SB 840 (Kuehl): The single-payer bill, which will be promptly vetoed by the Governor, sadly.

• A couple toxic chemicals bills: AB 1879 and SB 509.

• AB 2939 (Hancock): Allowing cities and counties to implement stricter green building guidelines than state law, which are already tightening through SB 375.

Among the bills that failed:

SB 1522, a health care reform bill which would have standardized the individual health care market and made it easier to comparison shop, as well as set a floor for basic minimum care.  That those who most strongly pushed for comprehensive health reform would fail to pass this common-sense fix makes no sense to me.

• SB 110, which would have created an independent sentencing commission to review and revised sentencing guidelines and parole standards.  Another failure of leadership in our prison crisis, as lawmakers refuse to loosen their grip on the rules which they’ve abused and led to this disaster.

As for the budget, now the legislature, out of session by constitutional mandate, must work on nothing else.  Sen. Perata has called the bluff on the Republicans, asking them to formally submit their unspeakably cruel budget plan so that the whole state can see their priorities for what they are.

There was a strange colloquy near the end of yesterday’s Senate session (Republican Senator Jim Battin is pictured at right), where the Republicans were clearly caught flatfooted, flustered in their responses like school kids admonished for not doing their homework, and having a hard time coming to grips with what Perata told them. This is a reprise of what Perata did last year when Senate Republicans held the budget up and when he asked them to come up with their own proposal.

Perata: Right now, the bill that I brought up yesterday is kind of an orphan. You have your opportunity to present a bill that you outlined today in your press conference. I appreciate the fact that there is a substantial amount of work to be done on that bill. We know, because we started ours 8 months ago. So you’ve got a lot of work to do. But we’re very confident you can do it. Every day we will be here to see how we’re doing […]

Republican Senator Jim Battin: I just want to make sure I understand what your expectations are. So what you want from our caucus is a full budget document, is that correct?

Perata: Yeah. A budget.

Battin: And every day we are preparing that, you want to meet.

Perata: Yeah. You know what I don’t’ want to do is to be caught in that position where people are getting confused whey we don’t have a budget. Now every day we meet, we can say, “you’re working on it.”

Battin: And you also want to have the trailer bills as well?

Perata: Yeah. A budget.

Battin: You would actually allow us to bring it up for a vote on the floor?

Perata: You betcha.

Battin: So my expectation is that it will fail…And then what?

Perata: Let’s not prejudge. You may come up with a piece of work that will knock our socks off. So let’s see what you will do.

It’s a neat trick, and good for political purposes.  I don’t know how it gets us closer to a budget.  Schwarzenegger still wants the sales tax hike, Yacht Party Republicans are still dead-set against it, and Democrats are trying to compromise and on the edge of cracking.  But they seem to believe, this time around, that the budget can be blamed on Republicans in November and there’s a benefit in campaigning on the issue (I think that’s why Perata wants a real plan).

So nobody knows how this ends.  And the victims are the public employees, the long-term care workers, the schools, the health clinics, the everyday Californians that did nothing wrong and don’t deserve this anxiety.  

Friday Evening Open Thread

A few nuggets for you:

• A Superior Court judge in Alameda County has ruled that cell phone companies cannot charge early-termination fees, and has ordered that Sprint return $18.2 million dollars to consumers.  This will probably get fought on appeal, but right on.  The concept of fee for service has worked pretty well for most of consumer capitalism, as has being nice to your customers instead of bullying them into compliance.

• There’s been a lot of outrage at the LA City Council’s ruling banning new fast-food restaurants from breaking ground in South LA for a year.  Actually, far from being an issue of infringing on freedom, it’s a little thing called land use, and every city has them – even the one that the outraged Will Saletan lives in.  

I’m pretty skeptical that these proposed South LA regulations will do any good. But it’s not unique or unusual for land use regulations to exist. And working class people around the country suffer dramatically larger concrete harms from the sort of commonplace suburbanist regulations that Saletan’s been living with, without apparent complaint, in Chevy Chase. Those kind of regulations are bad for the environment, bad for public health, and serve to use the power of the state to redistribute upwards. So if you’re going to rail against land use regulations, maybe pick the ones that really hurt people.

• In environmental news, Senate leaders like Barbara Boxer are calling for the resignation of EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson for his preferring ideology over science, defying the advice of his own staff, evading oversight and misleading Congress, particularly about refusing the California waiver to regulate tailpipe emissions.  They’re also asking the Attorney General to investigate whether Johnson perjured himself at one of the California waiver hearings in Congress.  In addition, Jerry Brown is suing the EPA for their refusal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions at the nation’s ports.

• And this is pretty interesting, turns out the Sarah of “Sarah’s Law” (parental notification) doesn’t have the squeaky-clean image her sponsors claim:

Backers of a ballot measure that would require parents to be notified before an abortion is performed on a minor acknowledged Friday that the 15-year-old on which “Sarah’s Law” is based had a child and was in a common-law marriage before she died of complications from an abortion in 1994 […]

A lawsuit co-sponsored by Planned Parenthood Affiliates and filed Friday in Sacramento County Superior Court asks the Secretary of State to remove the girl’s story and other information it deemed misleading, including any reference to “Sarah’s Law,” from the material submitted for the official voter guide.

“If you can’t believe the Sarah story, there’s a lot in the ballot argument you can’t believe,” said Ana Sandoval, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood and the campaign against Proposition 4.

Using someone’s life story for political means, and wrongly at that.  Good people.

  • Don’t forget the Begich fundraiser in SF tonight.
  • The No on 6 campaign will be doing some organizing in the next few weeks against Prop 6, another Runner initiative to wastefully incarcerate more of California’s youth.  There will be meetings in SoCal (tomorrow), SF(9/9), and in the Central Valley (9/16). Full details at the No on 6 website here.
  • Ok, your turn.

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