The year that local zoning control comes under attack

A new move to usurp the ability of cities to control development moves forward, quickly and quietly

2017 is already shaping up as a year in which local control of development will come under unprecedented assault in California and in the Bay Area in particular.

We have rookie State Senator Scott Wiener’s SB 35, submitted only a few hours after Wiener was sworn in to office on December 5. Still in placeholder form, the measure would put legal teeth into the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation and force cities to “meet” the allocation allotted to them by the state. This radical proposal—as Tim Redmond has observed, it could set off a housing war—did not appear on Wiener’s campaign website, nor, to my knowledge, did he ever he mention it on the campaign trail.

If SF loses control of local zoning, imagine how much more out of control development will be
If SF loses control of local zoning, imagine how much more out of control development will be

And now a new, Bay Area-centric attack on local control is on the way, via the Association of Bay Area Governments’ proposal to have the U.S. Economic Development Administration certify our region as a federal Economic Development District (EDD). Planning for this initiative began in June 2015, when ABAG staff broached the idea to the agency’s Executive Board and Regional Planning Committee.

The EDA requires a planning organization that is applying for an EDA-funded EDD to assemble a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Committee to oversee the preparation of a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS). The committee must represent “the main  economic interests of the region” and “include Private Sector Representatives…as a majority of its membership,” as well as public officials, community leaders, representatives of workforce development boards, representatives of institutions of higher education, minority and labor groups, and private individuals. (U.S. EDA “CEDS Summary of Requirements”).

Last summer ABAG convened a 38-member committee. The group met in July and September. Its next meeting is on Tuesday, January 10, from 1 to 3 pm in the Yerba Buena Conference Room at the Metro Center, 375 Beale, San Francisco. The agenda was posted on the ABAG website on January 6.

The gist of the proposed CEDS—and specifically the proposed attack on local control of government—began to emerge at the July meeting, when the committee reviewed a draft Vision and Goals statement. In keeping with EDA requirements, a CEDS must cover a wide range of topics: business climate, workforce development, environmental protection, resilience, the use of technology in economic development, funding, housing and infrastructure, and metrics.

The staff proposals that interested me the most were the ones that would severely curtail local control of development by standardizing permitting and zoning in the region across city boundaries.

Two days after the September 13 meeting, I sent the committee members and associated ABAG staff the following email:

Hello, all:

I’m the 48 hills reporter who attended last Tuesday’s meeting about creating a federal Economic Development District for the Bay Area via the submittal of a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy to the Economic Development Administration. 

The agenda for the meeting included a question—Which strategies can we immediately agree on?—that was never actually posed. I’d like to pose it with respect to specific recommendations in the Draft Summary of Economic Strategies, under “Government,” subhead “Ensure local regulations and permitting processes support retention and expansion of local business” (p. 7):

“The importance of aligning and coordinating local permits and regulations at the sub-regional or regional level is a consistent theme across numerous economic development reports. Coordination among economic development providers and cities on local tax policy or permitting makes it easier and potentially less costly for companies to locate in the region and grow.

*  Coordinate permit and fees within a sub-region in order to make the overall area are attractive and to reduce competition between cities for firms.

*  Harmonize local regulations across multiple jurisdictions, where it makes sense (e.g. solar installation) while considering regional differences and industry dynamics. Develop consistent and streamlined regulations and permitting processes.”

At the meeting, ABAG Economic Development Director Miriam Chion stated that the CEDS “is linked to and supporting Plan Bay Area.”

Yet the staff Introduction for the recently released Draft Preferred Scenario for Plan Bay 2040 says that the scenario “does not mandate any changes to local zoning rules, general plan or prices for reviewing projects…As is the case across California, the Bay Area’s cities, towns and counties maintain control of all decisions to adopt plans and permit or deny development projects.” 

My question: do you agree with the strategies highlighted [in italics] above?

Thank you.

No one responded.

 

At the January 10 meeting I plan to ask the committee: How do you propose to reconcile the stated commitment to maintaining local control of development that appears in the Draft Preferred Scenario of Plan Bay Area 2040 with the proposals to undermine if not eliminate that control that appear in the draft Comprehensive Economic Strategy?

That question becomes all the more urgent in light of the expanded CEDS Draft Vision and Goals that the committee will review on January 10:

Goal 3: Housing and Workspace

Objective 3.3: Ensure local regulations and permitting processes support retention and expansion of local business and infill development.

          Strategy 3.3.1  Coordinate permits and fees within a sub-region in order to make the overall area more attractive [to business] and reduce competition between cities for firms.

          Strategy 3.3.2   Develop more consistent and streamlined regulations and permitting procedures across jurisdictions, while allowing flexibility for regional differences and industry dynamics where appropriate.

          Strategy 3.3.3   To achieve a better balance of jobs and housing production and create stronger policy linkages between land use costs and benefits, explore opportunities for regional impact fees to allow for impacts to be compensated even if they occur in other jurisdictions.

Objective 3.4   Advocate for state regulatory changes that impede local infill development and ensure cities have the appropriate resources to provide necessary services and future maintenance.

          Strategy 3.4.1  Modernize the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). [This is code for rolling back the state’s premier environmental law.]

 

Goal 4: Infrastructure

Objective 4.2  Increase access to jobs, economic opportunity and capacity for all workers increasing transportation equity.

          Strategy 4.2.3  Require jurisdictions that apply for planning or transportation funding from ABAG or MTC to allow residential as a primary use on all parcels located in a Priority Development Area and within ½ mile of a high-capacity transit stop.

          Strategy 4.2.4  Require jurisdictions that apply for planning or transportation funding from ABAG or MTC to remove parking minimums for all residential uses located in a Priority Development Area and within ½ mile of a high-capacity transit stop.

 

The implementation of these proposals would profoundly diminish cities’ ability to control development within their boundaries. As per EDA rules, the application is to be approved by a majority of the Bay Area’s nine county boards of supervisors. There are no provisions for review, much less approval, at the municipal level. 

 

My strong hunch is that very few city councils in the Bay Area are aware of ABAG’s EDD initiative. Only four members of the 38-member Strategy Committee sit on a city council—Monica Wilson from Antioch, Pradeep Gupta from South San Francisco, Dave Hudson from San Ramon, and Carmen Montano from Milpitas. The rest are all county supervisors (four), public agency staffers, or representatives of non-profits.

In light of the EDA stipulations, Wilson, Gupta, Hudson, and Montano presumably represent the cities of the region, not just their own jurisdictions. Accordingly, they ought to demand that before the committee moves forward with an application to the U.S. EDA, the draft Vision and Goals and Comprehensive Economic Strategy ought to be vetted by every city council in the region, preferably at public hearing.

If past is precedent, they will do no such thing, but instead allow themselves to continue to be railroaded by ABAG staff into moving the application process forward.

Item 3 on the September 14 agenda, a “Facilitated regional strategy discussion,” included asking “Which strategies can we immediately agree on?” and “Which strategies should not be considered at this time?” As I noted in my email to the committee, at the meeting, neither of those questions was actually posed. And indeed, in a meeting that lasted only an hour and a half, there was no way that any group could have even begun to review the dozens of strategies listed in the draft Vision and Goals.

Yet near the end, ABAG Chief Economist Cynthia Kroll said, “Now that we have a set of strategies that we’re working from…”

The next day I sent Kroll, ABAG Planning Director Miriam Chion, and Senior Planner Johnny Jaramillo an email noting the omission of the agendaized questions. Citing Kroll’s remark, I asked:  “Does that mean that the answer to the question “’Which strategies can we immediately agree on?’” is effectively all of them?”

I never got a reply.