On October 28, 2011, the San Diego Association of Governments ("SANDAG") took the historic, albeit controversial, step of approving the nation's first comprehensive regional sustainability plan: the SANDAG "Sustainable Communities Strategy." This important document sets forth SANDAG's 40-year plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and is hailed by supporters as a milestone in California's efforts to ensure a sustainable future, but derived by critics on several grounds. Developers, planners, builders, design professionals, and others engaged in the green-building movement should take note of this issue, which promises to set the stage for similar action plans throughout the state in the near future.
The Sustainable Communities Strategy ("SCS") was adopted, in part, to satisfy legal requirements mandated under California Senate Bill 375 (SB 375), which obligates regional transportation agencies to adopt a "sustainable communities strategy." As approved, the SCS is an element of SANDAG's large 2050 Regional Transportation Plan ("RTP"), and also seeks to comply with emissions reduction targets promulgated by the California Air Resources Board ("CARB"). Under CARB guidelines, year 2005 emissions levels are to be reduced by 7% by 2020, and 13% by 2035. The SCS provides for bold steps to be taken to achieve these targets.
For example, under the SCS, a projected $196 billion in local, state, and federal funds will be invested in transportation options that will give commuters alternatives to driving. These alternatives include buses, trains, trolleys, bike lanes, and carpool networks. The SCS also preserves large amounts of open space, park land, and habitat.
However, these efforts have not been free from criticism. Supporters of the plan note the positive effects the SCS will have on public transit and future growth. It combines environmental conservation with the region's needs for improved infrastructure to accommodate the current population and future growth. Furthermore, the plan is expected to create nearly 40,000 jobs per year. But critics have denounced the RTP, arguing that it devotes too many resources to public transit, while others argue that it does not extend enough resources to public transit.
Indeed, one critic of the plan, U.S. Representative Bob Filner (D-CA), has stated that SANDAG's approval of the RTP could result in lawsuits against local governments because the RTP does not meet mandatory environmental standards. Other notable critics of SANDAG's RTP include the Sierra Club, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, and SanDiego350.org.
Overall, the SCS marks a critical shift toward a more sustainable future for California's communities, and has the potential to dramatically reshape the legal landscape in which local governments operate. This shift should be watched carefully by those who routinely work with cities, counties, and other local agencies, and is of particular importance to professionals engaged in green-building and related fields. Whether SANDAG's SCS is effective remains to be seen, but it embodies a growing desire in state and local governments for environmental regulation and conservation.
Attorneys at Alvarez-Glasman and Colvin have been at the forefront of legal developments in sustainable development, green building, and land use planning. If you are interested in learning more about the legal aspects of sustainable development, or if you have other questions concerning the legal intricacies of sustainable community law in California, please contact AGC attorney Matthew M. Gorman or any of the firm's other attorneys at 707-944-0540 (Northern California) or 562-699-5500 (Southern California).
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