Los Angeles County Moves Toward New “General Plan” Governing Development for Next 20 Years

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors yesterday took the first important step toward adopting a new General Plan, the constitution for land use policy and development for the unincorporated areas of the county.  The County’s current general plan was adopted in 1980.  This update is intended to apply to all the County’s unincorporated areas through 2035.

With little fanfare, the Board took action on the Final Environmental Impact Report for the General Plan update.  The Board also indicated its intent to approve the general plan, related zoning changes, a climate action plan, and a new Hillside Management Ordinance.  County Counsel will now prepare the necessary final documents for the General Plan update and related approvals and bring them back to the Board for final consideration.  Once finally approved, all future development in the unincorporated areas of the County must be consistent with the new General Plan.

The General Plan divides the county into 11 planning areas to accommodate a more refined level of planning.  Those areas are:

  • Antelope Valley Planning Area
  • Coastal Islands Planning Area
  • East San Gabriel Valley Planning Area
  • Gateway Planning Area
  • Metro Planning Area
  • San Fernando Planning Area
  • Santa Clarita Valley Planning Area
  • Santa Monica Mountains Planning Area
  • South Bay Planning Area
  • West San Gabriel Valley Planning Area
  • Westside Planning Area

The General Plan also establishes mechanisms to implement capital improvement plans for each of these 11 planning areas.  Once funding has been secured and priorities have been set, each capital improvement plan will include studies of necessary infrastructure improvements.

The General Plan also establishes Transit Oriented Districts within one-half mile of a transit station to promote transit-oriented development, or pedestrian-friendly and community-serving uses that encourage walking, bicycling, and transit use.

A sub-element of the plan — the Community Climate Action Plan — includes a greenhouse gas emissions inventory and specific measures to reach the County’s greenhouse gas emission reduction goals in the unincorporated areas. The plan includes a 2020 GHG emissions target for the unincorporated areas — a reduction of 11% below 2010 levels to achieve consistency with the State’s AB 32 goals and the California Air Resource’s Board’s Scoping Plan.  This reduction is the equivalent to removing 506,000 passenger vehicles from the road each year, reducing gasoline consumption by more than 272 million gallons, and providing renewable energy to power over 121,000 homes.  The majority of emissions reductions will come from state-level mandates, and the balance will come from new County policies in five areas:  green building and energy; land use and transportation; water conservation and wastewater; waste reduction, reuse and recycling; and land conservation and tree planting.

The plan sets aside additional land in the County with a “Significant Ecological Area” designation.  The designation is given to land that contains significant biological resources.  Some SEAs include undisturbed or lightly disturbed habitats that support valuable or threatened species, linkages and corridors to promote species movement, and are sized to support sustainable populations of species.  Hillside Management Areas, or lands with a natural slope of 25% or greater, are also governed by new policies to incorporate sensitive hillside design measures to preserve the physical integrity and scenic value of the hillsides.

The action taken by the Board included an amendment offered by Supervisor Hilda Solis, requesting that the Regional Planning Commission report back to the Board in 90 days on the viability of including “value capture” policies in future land use planning.  Value capture mechanisms, as commonly understood, allow local governments to require land owners to “share” the economic value created by “upzoning” changes to land use entitlements, over and above revenue that may be generated by simple increases property taxes when a new structure is finished.  It will be interesting to see how the staff reports back on this issue.

California Supreme Court Will Hear Suit On SANDAG’s Transportation Plan

The California Supreme Court will decide whether the environmental impact report for SANDAG’s regional transportation plan must include an analysis of the plan’s consistency with statewide greenhouse gas emission reduction goals established by executive order. The San Diego Association of Governments (“SANDAG”) brought the appeal in Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments.

This is an important case to watch.  Greenhouse gas emissions analysis will become more complicated and expensive for local government agencies and project applicants if consistency with the executive order is required.

In 2005, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger issued Executive Order S-3-05, establishing greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets for California.  The executive order required reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2010, to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.  This executive order, still effective today, was at issue in the case.

SANDAG is the public body charged with preparing a regional transportation plan and sustainable communities strategy for the San Diego region. The proposed plan is the guidance document for transportation investment of approximately $214 billion over the next several decades.

SANDAG prepared an EIR to analyze the environmental impacts of the proposed transportation plan.  The EIR was held defective by the lower court for several reasons, but the most controversial reason related to the EIR’s discussion of the plan’s greenhouse gas emissions.  While the EIR did include a lengthy discussion of the plan’s greenhouse gas emissions impacts, the EIR did not specifically analyze whether the overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions levels disclosed by the plan conflicted with the executive order or would impair or impede the achievement of the executive order’s goals.  The court held that SANDAG’s decision to omit an analysis of the plan’s consistency with the executive order “did not reflect a reasonable, good faith effort at full disclosure and is not supported by substantial evidence because SANDAG’s decision ignored the Executive Order’s role in shaping state climate policy.”

SANDAG argued that the court was asking it to do something that CEQA did not require.  There is no statute or regulation translating the executive order’s goals into scientifically based emissions reductions targets.  The EIR’s analysis of the transportation plan’s greenhouse gas emissions impacts complied with CEQA because it used significance thresholds specified in CEQA Guidelines section 15064.4.  Moreover, SANDAG argued that, as the public agency with applicable authority, it had the discretion to select the criteria to determine the significance of the plan’s greenhouse gas impacts.  We will see if SANDAG takes up these arguments again with the high court.

The California Supreme Court may also answer an important question raised by the dissent in the lower court case:  whether Executive Order S-3-05 is a threshold of significance, as understood by CEQA.  A “threshold of significance” is an objective, criteria or procedure used to measure or determine the significance of the environmental effects of a project.  Thresholds of significance must be adopted through a public review process.

The dissent argued that there is no authority for the proposition that the Governor has the power to establish thresholds of significance, qualitative or quantitative.  Rather, the Legislature has retained control over the regulation of environmental planning, vesting responsibility in the California Air Resources Board in particular to help implement greenhouse gas emissions policy.

This latter, exciting “separation of powers” issue is more apparent than real.  The executive order established greenhouse gas emissions targets, certainly.  But was the governor’s executive order intended to have a CEQA purpose? More specifically, was it intended to establish a threshold of significance?  Since all seven members of the Supreme Court voted in favor of taking this case, could this suggest that they are willing to take on this tough issue raised by the dissent?