Sierra Club Opposes One Of The Most Essential Climate Bills In California
Environmental group whiffs on proposed laws to permit badly needed residential development near transit
Housing more Californians near transit and never in sprawl areas represents one of the crucial crucial ways to cut back greenhouse gas emissions. Senate Bill 827 (Wiener) would help just do that, by stopping local governments from zoning people (and houses) out of those prime transit areas. So it was surprising to see an environmental organization like Sierra Club California come out against the bill (here is their opposition letter).
Just how high are the environmental stakes of SB 827? Berkeley Law, along with the Terner Center and Next 10, recently analyzed the impact of putting all latest residential development in California through 2030 inside three miles of transit or in low-vehicle miles traveled neighborhoods (areas without rail but where residents drive at low rates) and located the next impacts:
Annual reductions of 1.79 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in comparison with the business-as-usual scenario, which is the equivalent of taking 378,000 cars off the road and almost 15 percent of the emissions reductions needed to achieve the state’s Senate Bill 375 (Steinberg, 2008) targets from statewide land use changes.
Significantly, the geography we examined was farther from transit than what SB 827 encompasses, which only covers as much as one-half mile near major transit. So the greenhouse gas savings and air quality improvements from constructing latest homes near transit shall be significantly greater under SB 827.
So why would Sierra Club oppose what’s arguably the state’s most vital climate bill this term (because the Latest York Times couches it)? Let’s undergo their arguments:
First, they argue the SB 827 will fuel neighborhood opposition to latest transit. Why would residents support a latest rail line, Sierra Club argues, if SB 827 will force these residents to make land use changes to permit latest people of their community to live near it? Perhaps the Sierra Club doesn’t understand it, but they simply made a very important point in favor of SB 827. The higher query is: why should we construct expensive latest rail lines through low-density communities, after they refuse to offer the ridership needed to support these taxpayer investments? SB 827 is definitely a terrific strategy to weed out bad rail projects with weak ridership in favor of more sensible transit investments, like bus-only lanes or rail in areas that may actually support it.
Second, they argue that bus routes and repair changes on a regular basis, so frequent transit service now is likely to be reduced, leaving SB 827-style dense development underserved by buses. But in case you have a look at the maps of bus routes served with 15 minute peak headways, they cover major arterials that might be among the many last places a transit agency would peg for service reduction, like Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco and Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. And if Sierra Club is de facto concerned about service reductions, why not recommend an amendment that the bus routes should have been in service at 15 minute commute headways for a minimum time frame for SB 827 to qualify? Otherwise, this looks as if a weak reason to oppose the bill outright.
Third, they’re fearful about displacement of low-income renters near transit. As I’ve blogged before, this can be a legitimate yet overblown concern. Gentrification and displacement is going on now like crazy, precisely because we’re not constructing enough housing overall. Moreover, developers will construct in upscale transit areas where they’ll get higher returns, not in low-income neighborhoods. For instance, a UCLA study examining low-income neighborhoods across the Blue Line light rail from Downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach showed virtually no investment in these areas, despite some very relaxed local zoning.
But when Sierra Club is really concerned about displacement, why not recommend policies to deal with it within the bill, reminiscent of requirements for tenant relocation assistance, inclusionary zoning, or density bonuses? As a substitute, they provide no solutions, while failing to acknowledge the large displacement already occurring as a consequence of the present housing shortage. My query for Sierra Club: what do they propose to combat the gentrification and displacement currently happening now? And where do they need latest homes to be built, if not in these prime transit areas?
Fourth, they argue for more incentives on growth as a substitute of a state-based approach like SB 827. But incentives only go up to now if you’re up against well-heeled homeowner groups who will vote out elected officials who don’t toe the exclusionary line. What incentives does Sierra Club imagine might entice Westwood homeowners to support upzoning their single-family zone across the Expo Line? Or Rockridge neighbors to approve more density across the BART station there? Let’s face it — local control in transit-rich, upscale areas mean the forces of exclusion win. Hence the critical need for approaches like SB 827.
Finally, Sierra Club complains that a few of these latest buildings near transit won’t have to undertake environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act, based on last 12 months’s SB 35. This can be a little bit of a convoluted argument. SB 35 only applies to jurisdictions behind on inexpensive housing production. The projects which can be then eligible for SB 35 CEQA streamlining must otherwise meet strict requirements and be compliant with local zoning, including providing a big amount of inexpensive housing on-site (addressing the displacement concerns Sierra Club raised earlier). So the universe of projects that escapes CEQA review under SB 35 is already pretty minimal.
But more importantly, in case you follow this line of argument, now that SB 35 is in effect, Sierra Club is largely saying they won’t favor any zoning changes to permit latest housing in communities which can be behind on producing inexpensive units because it’d mean CEQA doesn’t apply to projects consistent with that zoning. I don’t think that’s a position Sierra Club really desires to take.
Overall, Sierra Club California appears to be at a reputational crossroads here on smart growth. Their image on this issue took an enormous hit when wealthy property owners used the San Francisco chapter to oppose latest housing in the town, precisely the low-carbon area where latest housing should go. And while Sierra Club made its mark stopping environmentally bad projects like dams and forest clear cuts, the climate fight now requires a pivot to supporting constructing things as a substitute: on this case, badly needed housing in transit-rich areas. Unfortunately, with their opposition to SB 827, Sierra Club California just took an enormous step backward on this important environmental issue.