Brown wins battle in war on sprawl

Legal News Line Sep. 10, 2008, 3:58pm

Jerry Brown (D)

STOCKTON, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-A new plan to curb urban sprawl crafted under the influence of Attorney General Jerry Brown narrowly passed the Stockton City Council last night, infuriating local business leaders and developers who say they invested five years in the plan before Brown jumped into the fray.

The 4-3 vote to approve a new General Plan settles a legal dispute the city had with the Sierra Club - and one that Brown had threatened to join - over its initial plan approved in December that set a pattern for growth in this agricultural city that is an hour's drive south of Sacramento.

Stockton's population of nearly 300,000 could double by the year 2035, according to city officials, largely from people fleeing the more expensive San Francisco area, which is 90 miles from Stockton.

The revised General Plan will force some of that group back into the city's core. The new General Plan requires that 4,400 homes be built downtown, with the goal of approving construction on 3,000 of those homes by 2020.

Brown said the new plan will mitigate the potential loss of one million acres of farmland, improve rapidly deteriorating air quality that has already made the area among the smoggiest in the nation and decrease dependence on foreign oil.

Brown criticized the initial plan for allowing sprawl toward the city limits and harming the environment. Brown negotiated a new plan with city officials that included the consideration of green building standards and the reduction of the impact of development on the environment among other changes.

Brown called the new General Plan "an historic agreement that will ... affect local air quality, farmland, commute times and the kind of housing tens of thousands of people will live in," in a statement released by the attorney general's office today.

A legal challenge to the plan failed in court on Monday. After the ruling, Building Industry Association of the Delta Executive Director John Beckman said Brown's involvement was the next step in the attorney general's plan to alter California's business development.

"Following his success in San Bernardino it is not surprising that he would seek a larger success," Berkman told Legal Newsline on Monday.

Brown sued San Bernardino County in 2007 because its updated General Plan did not properly address global warming.

Critics say other California cities and counties could be next, a strategy Brown did not discount when he released a public statement following Stockton City Council's vote.

"This agreement is a critical part of California's effort to address climate change," the statement said.

In January, shortly after announcing his threat to sue Stockton, Brown made an unannounced appearance at the California Planning and Conservation League's annual symposium and vowed to sue cities and counties that do not account for climate change in their next General Plan.

At that meeting, according to a report on the organization's Web site, Brown said he could not sue all of the 120 communities currently in the process of revising their General Plans saying, "they'll run me out of town." But he did promise to target communities that "are flagrant, egregious and vulnerable."

Those in attendance cheered Brown's impromptu remarks, which drew a final joke: "Every time you applaud, that's one more lawsuit I will file."

Some in Stockton weren't laughing this time, however.

Critics of the plan packed the council chambers Tuesday night, according to the Stockton Record, wearing buttons that read "Jobs yes, settlement, no." They urged the council to deny the plan saying it would drive up housing costs and cause the city to lose jobs.

"This settlement gives away everything the attorney general asked for," Beckman said. "After spending five years working on a General Plan, I am shocked at how willing the city is to set aside all of the hard work and time that was invested by hundreds of citizens."

Likewise, it wasn't all cheers for Brown at the January symposium. Attorney and author Stephen Kostka, joined a panel discussion on the topic after Brown's speech and said people expect land-use planning to provide more greenhouse gas emission reductions than is likely. Also, decades of planning and zoning exclusions contributed to the type of developments now being attacked by Brown.

"I'm not sure how far you can roll the film backwards," Kostka said.

Nevertheless, Brown is determined to try. Prior to the council vote, Brown issued an opinion piece that touted the benefits of guarding against urban sprawl.

"Limiting sprawl can preserve farmland, protect wildlife habitat and save precious water resources," he wrote. "It can also mean safer communities. Family-centered neighborhoods with stores and jobs in close proximity and streets where people easily walk or bike are safer and experience far less crime. It's not a coincidence that Stockton's violent crime rate nearly doubled from 1999 to 2005, just as its sprawl worsened."

Earlier this summer, Brown made the case to combat sprawl in a public debate in the Wall Street Journal, in which Brown responded to criticism that he was waging war on California suburbs.

"No thoughtful person can really question the fact that we must grow smarter, with more efficient and less polluting transportation," he wrote.

As Brown has already stated, this battle against urban sprawl will not be the last.

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