California Caucus Stokes 'Smart Growth' Debate
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
As a rallying cry, "smart growth" can be a political chameleon, adapting to suit the land use visions of preservationists, home and road builders, local governments, mass transit advocates, environmentalists, Republicans or Democrats but rarely all of them at once. Earlier this year, a group of powerful Democrats in the California legislature organized themselves around the idea, staking a claim to the smart growth mantle in a state that could welcome as many as 24 million new residents over the next 40 years.
Freshman Assemblywoman Patricia Wiggins , slated to take over as chair of the Local Government Committee if she wins re-election this fall, officially launched the California Smart Growth Caucus in May after party leaders decided to pool resources on a swarm of loosely related growth legislation. Chalking up a few early victories for affordable housing and infill development while shaping the budget package, the caucus continues to back bills that one spokesman said are "very likely" to pass before the session wraps up this month.
Nationwide, smart growth gained new political power in 1998, when voters approved nearly three-fourths of the hundreds of open space and sustainability initiatives on state and local ballots. Governors, many of them northeastern and western Republicans, used the words with clarity and enthusiasm in their State of the State addresses at the beginning of this year. But what exactly do they mean to a California Democrat?
"Well, it's not putting the way we grow on auto-pilot and getting some policies in place that preserve the quality of life and accommodate the coming growth in such a way that we don't lose our farmland and open space and [keep] cities vital," said Wiggins, a former Santa Rosa city council member whose district includes part of Napa Valley.
The first of its kind in the country, the caucus promotes itself as a "pro-growth" body with a "fix it first" agenda that directs resources toward infrastructure maintenance before authorizing major new development. Its potential power could far exceed mere numbers: At present, each of the 28 members are chairs of committees and subcommittees with some link to housing, transportation, natural resources, health and public safety.
In a state where Democrats occupy the governor's mansion and enjoy a comfortable majority in both houses of the legislature, a unified caucus could set the tone of growth management for decades and perhaps serve as a legislative model for the nation.
But there are problems. William Fulton of the Ventura-based Solimar Research Group , a centrist land use think tank, says a key one is that Gov. Gray Davis is far less interested in growth than he is in other issues, such as reforming education."The history of land use reform at the state level is almost entirely the history of strong governors willing to take a political risk on this issue. With the exception of the state of Washington, every major state-level land use reform that we've ever seen in the United States has been as the result of an aggressive governor," he says, pointing to Maryland, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey and Oregon.
And though the caucus has their attention, several major players in the California growth game say they are going to consider each piece of legislation separately.
"You can't really take a stand against smart growth - it's like motherhood and apple pie. But I would say that we probably look towards [the caucus] cautiously," said DeAnn Baker, who represents the housing and transportation interests of the California State Association of Counties .
Baker said that balancing the needs of urban cores and rural areas while bearing in mind the limited fiscal power of county governments are "pieces to the smart growth puzzle we think are critical."
Wiggins told Stateline.org that while the construction industry sponsors one of her bills, which seeks to establish a statewide building redevelopment code, she expects to have to win builders' support on a case-by-case basis.
That kind of reluctance may be due as much to the caucus' lack of a comprehensive vision as it is to the inherent suspicions of any single group. Steven Hayward, who directs the Center for Environmental and Regulatory Reform at the conservative Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in San Francisco, calls the caucus "embryonic."
"Their bills seem to be kind of small-bore. They didn't add up to a grand vision like you see in some other states where people want to really go for compact development and comprehensive planning. The irony to me is that the smart growth ferment in California seems somewhat less than it is in the rest of the country," he said.
Both Hayward and Fulton say this is due in part to the effects of term limits. Short tenures swelled the legislature with local government veterans with growth management experience. But they've also curtailed lawmakers' long term influence and produced a patchwork of incremental legislation.
"Nobody in the legislature now has the time, the comprehensive knowledge, or the political daring to attempt a comprehensive, sweeping reform of anything," Fulton says. Caucus leaders, aware that their clocks are ticking, acknowledge that 2000 is primarily a trial period for them to build consensus and educate each other on the issues. But some items from the original package are still alive this session, according to a caucus spokesman. One measure streamlines local agency formation commissions to facilitate coordinated planning. Another targets affordable housing closer to job centers, reducing commute times and expenses.
Supporters outside the legislature appear willing for now to back the nibble-here, nibble-there approach and are grateful that sprawl is finally getting some attention after years devoted to rebuilding the economy.
"We've always had positions [on] housing and land use and the environment and we've looked at how those should all be fitting together in tax and fiscal policy. So we've been very pleased to see that a caucus is doing the same thing," said Trudy Schafer of California's League of Women Voters , who joined caucus members at their inaugural press conference.
Other political obstacles loom larger. One is the concerns of Hispanics, California's largest and fastest-growing minority group. Hayward says that although they are "very upwardly mobile," Hispanics "don't like the sound of [smart growth] very much because they understand that if you put up urban growth boundaries around Fresno, it's going to mean higher housing prices."
Another concern is the absence of Republicans, who are key smart growth advocates in other states. Democrats say they are welcome but reluctant to participate in California. "It's hard for Republicans to break ranks right now," says Wiggins, who plans to approach like-minded GOP lawmakers about their interest in joining the Smart Growth Caucus.
But Assemblyman Tony Strickland's office says Strickland was discouraged from joining the caucus because he had not supported most of its legislative package in the past.
Strickland , one of two Republicans to represent Southern California's growth-besieged Ventura County, believes his support for the county's Save Open-space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiative in 1998 edged him into office in the traditionally left-leaning 37th District. He is now in the process of forming a Republican caucus to promote local control of growth decisions over the Democrats' regional approach.
"We want to be prepared for the debate on smart growth. We want to use it to educate the rest of the [Republican] caucus about the issues and to propose legislation," a GOP spokesman said.