Who’s paying to cut air pollution?
We all are—and it’s not doing much good. Now local leaders are considering another funding source: fees on new development
Standing at the lectern, Barbara Vlamis waved some documents in the air. “You need to think about air-quality impact fees,” she exclaimed. “I’ve got the information right here. I’ll give you copies. Please take a look.”
The occasion was the Chico Planning Commission’s May 10 hearing on the proposed Meriam Park project. Vlamis, the executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, was there to express her group’s strong support of the project, but she wasn’t about to let the occasion pass without pointing out that Meriam Park, as good as it was, had one major flaw: air pollution.
And that there was a solution to that problem: air-pollution impact fees.
Like virtually every project proposed in the city these days, Meriam Park will have, as its environmental-impact report states, “significant and unavoidable impacts” on air quality. Mostly, it will generate traffic—and with that comes exhaust fumes.
As a result, the City Council, in order to certify the Meriam Park EIR according to California Environmental Quality Act guidelines, will have to do what it does with all such projects: make a finding that “overriding considerations” warrant approval of the project despite the unavoidable impacts.
If Meriam Park were being built in Yuba or Sutter counties, however, that wouldn’t be necessary. There, a system is in place whereby developers can pay air-pollution mitigation fees into a pool of money called a nexus fund. The money can be used to clean up the air in a variety of ways—by buying new clean-running natural-gas buses, for example, or paying to retire old, polluting automobiles.
Other counties have similar programs. The eight counties of the San Joaquin Unified Air Pollution Control District, which in 2005 became the first district to set up such a program, last year took in more than $12 million in fees on new developments and spent $9.5 million on mitigations, mostly on a subsidy program that replaces old, polluting diesel farm irrigation pumps with new, low-pollution systems.
Vlamis believes the time has come for Butte County to begin looking seriously at establishing mitigation fees for air pollution. As it turns out, she’s not alone in her belief.
Gale Williams is the director of the Butte County Air Quality Management District. She is well aware that other districts in the state have implemented development fees to mitigate traffic impacts and believes that, for a variety of reasons, Butte County will do likewise.
“I think we’re going to have to have something in place” before long, she said. Because of the state’s expanding population and long, sunny summers, “we grow air pollution in this valley.” Butte County does not fully meet state clean-air standards, particularly for ozone and particulate matter, both of which are produced by vehicles.
Noting that most existing mitigation-fee programs are run by air-quality management districts, Williams said that if such a program were set up in Butte County, her agency most likely would manage it.
She added that AB 32, Governor Schwarzenegger’s climate-change initiative, mandates that greenhouse gas emissions be quantified and mitigated. The Air Resources Board is now in the process of setting up strategies and deadlines to accomplish this.
She can think of plenty of ways to clean up the air. “If we had funding, I could do lots of shopping,” she said with a laugh.
One approach is to buy up old wood heaters and replace them with new, clean-burning ones. Another would be to replace old lawn mowers with electric models.
“We could put more money into bike lanes and park-and-ride stops, into transit shelters, even electric bikes and cars,” she said.
She said the district’s 10-member board, which is made up of the five county supervisors and representatives of the five municipal councils in the county, will begin developing new guidelines for air pollution impacts and mitigations at its meeting on June 28.
A software modeling program called Urbemis that is available from the ARB can be used to estimate the amount of pollution projects are going to create, Williams said. Establishing guidelines for mitigating these impacts is “a step” toward mandating mitigation fees. It will be up to the board, she said, to determine whether and when to move farther in that direction.
Councilman Scott Gruendl, who represents Chico on the AQMD’s board, agrees that the district’s guidelines are “antiquated” and says that “depending on how updating the guidelines turns out, it could be the foundation for air-quality mitigation fees.”
Interestingly, one of the biggest proponents of such fees is Tom DiGiovanni, president of New Urban Builders, the company behind Meriam Park. He and Vlamis have been working together to promote the concept for a long time.
Meriam Park proposes to build in a great number of traffic-reducing factors, DiGiovanni said, but nevertheless the project will add to overall pollution. “New Urban Builders does contribute to our air problems,” he said, “so we asked ourselves what we should do about it. … In general, I feel a mitigation of some sort needs to be examined.”
Both Butte County and the city of Chico are in the process of updating their general plans, and some kind of air-pollution mitigation program should be included, he said.
DiGiovanni’s hope is that whatever mitigation fee schedule is finally adopted takes into consideration a range of factors, including project densities and patterns. While Meriam Park is clearly a large project, he explained, the fact that it relies on quality design to build at a higher density and incorporates a commercial center serving the neighborhood contributes ultimately to lessening sprawl and traffic.
DiGiovanni is an unusual developer, and it’s unlikely many of his peers in the construction industry share his support for new fees.
Jason Bougie, head of the local chapter of the Building Industry Association, said his group had heard of air-pollution impact fees but hadn’t really looked into it. The concept of a nexus fee for traffic impacts seemed like a “real stretch,” he said, but he added that he needed to do more studying.
Chico Councilman Steve Bertagna is wary of additional fees. Like most business-friendly officials, he’s never been fond of development fees but has grudgingly accepted them as an important way to fund new streets, parks and schools.
“I would caution everybody not to get too excited about this,” he said. He’s not sure a need exists for new fees.
“Old cars are getting off the road because of the smog laws,” he pointed out. “New vehicles have much better emissions standards.”
He’s wary of creating a new government function. “I would be hard-pressed to trust another level of bureaucracy,” he explained. “Who would control the money? How would you measure whether they’d achieved their goal?”
Good questions all—and there are many more that can be asked, as the districts with fee structures have learned. Fortunately, their hard work has plowed the soil, making the Butte County Air Quality Management District’s job much easier. And, with AB 32 regulations looming in the near future, it may be tackling that job sooner rather than later.