Green means go

State Attorney General Jerry Brown tells Sacramento to get moving on its global-warming plan

California Attorney General Jerry Brown thinks Sacramento isn’t pulling its weight in the fight against global warming.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown thinks Sacramento isn’t pulling its weight in the fight against global warming.

Courtesy Of attorney General's office

The state attorney general wants Sacramento to stop talking about what it plans to do about global warming and just do it.

California’s top cop Jerry Brown hasn’t been shy about forcing local governments around the state onto the global-warming bandwagon. In 2007, he sued the county of San Bernadino and then threatened to sue the city of Stockton to make them comply with the state’s climate-change plan. Now the A.G. is getting involved in the writing of Sacramento’s general plan—the once-in-a-generation document that guides future development.

The plan is due to be adopted by the Sacramento City Council in late January. But this summer, as city staff was putting the finishing touches on an environmental-impact report for the plan, Jerry Brown’s deputies intervened, saying the plan skirted Sacramento’s responsibility to help fight global warming.

“We thought we were doing a great job. We thought maybe we’d get a letter from the A.G. saying we were doing a great job,” said Tom Pace, the city’s long range planning manager. Instead, he got a letter saying nice try, but there was “substantial room for improvement” in the city’s plan.

The city’s general-plan process has been underway for four years. During that time, planners and policy-makers have crafted a whole range of development guidelines, including rules on housing affordability, the city’s development boundaries and the mix of office, commercial and residential properties.

The plan anticipates nearly 40 percent population growth in the city. Planners estimate that there will 100,000 new housing units, 140,000 new jobs and 200,000 new people in the city of Sacramento by the year 2030.

The last big overhaul of the city’s general plan was in 1988. Back then, the phrase “suburban sprawl” hadn’t entered common usage. Even the notion of “global warming” was still unfamiliar to most.

Recognizing the realities of the 21st century, Pace says the city’s new general plan turns the old development patterns upside down. The new plan calls for the two-thirds of future growth to be directed into already developed areas of the city. That means shoehorning thousands of new homes, shops and offices into downtown, into empty lots in existing neighborhoods and along existing commercial corridors, like 65th Street and Florin Road.

By contrast, one-third of the new growth will be “greenfield” development, constructed on presently undeveloped land in areas like Delta Shores, the south part of the city, or Greenbriar and the Panhandle in Natomas.

Pace says the city’s emphasis on infill development will help cut down on long commutes, support public transportation and lower our dependency on automobiles.

In fact, the attorney general gives the city high marks for its efforts to encourage infill. But there are several areas where the A.G. was less impressed.

“A lot of it was sort of vague,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Trankley.

For example, consider this passage, wherein city planners talk about thinking about a new environmental rule:

“The city shall conduct a study to explore the feasibility of developing and implementing an energy and water retrofit ordinance for existing development.”

Trankley wrote to Pace asking that he just dispense with the “study to explore the feasibility of developing” and go ahead and write the new rules.

“In a nutshell, we’re asking them to make a commitment,” Trankley said. We want them to commit to doing ordinances, not just plans.”

One of the biggest disagreements is about the city’s “green building” program. In 2007, Sacramento adopted green-building guidelines for new commercial and residential construction in the city. The guidelines are essentially checklists of best practices. Builders get points for designing buildings that save energy and water, use sustainable building materials and are located in walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods.

City staff didn’t write the new guidelines; they adopted already existing standards, like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and Build It Green. But there are no rules requiring Sacramento builders to follow those standards.

Trankley has pushed city officials to reconsider that, and to craft a mandatory set of green-building rules. But the city has been resistant, complaining Sacramento would be less competitive with suburban jurisdictions where building rules would be more lax. “They were very candid,” Trankley said. “They’re concerned that if all the jurisdictions don’t act as a whole, it would make development harder in the city.”

“We want to make sure infill development is not harder to do than greenfield development,” Pace confirmed. “If it seems like the city is creating barriers or requiring costly upgrades—well, it’s a tough balancing act to keep this agenda moving forward.”

But Trankley argues that green buildings are more attractive to customers, and that “while initial development costs may be slightly higher … these costs are more than offset by energy and water savings within a few years.”

Trankley also points to a list of more than two dozen California cities, small and large, that have adopted mandatory green-building ordinances, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Novato, Livermore, San Jose, Pleasanton, Santa Barbara and Pasadena.

By contrast, Sacramento has taken a much more circuitous approach. In 2007, the city council adopted a resolution that directed staff to form a green-building ordinance task force. But according to Bob Chase, the city’s chief building official, that task force was never assembled, because of the souring economy and the city’s ensuing budget crisis and layoffs.

However, pressure from the attorney general’s office appears to have given green building a bit of new momentum. Since the negotiations with the A.G. began this summer, the city and county and SMUD have agreed to work together to form another green-building task force.

The new task force, says Chase, will likely include a broad spectrum of interested parties. There could be representatives from the Environmental Council of Sacramento as well as local real-estate developers. Unlike the original task force, this group would cover the county as well as the city of Sacramento. Chase said the task force could be formed by spring of 2009, and he estimates it would take six months for them to complete the work.

The task force would look at new building standards as well as rules to retrofit existing buildings to save energy and water. “It’s going to be a bit of political hot potato,” Chase explained. For example, should the new law require homeowners to make improvements before they sell their house and shoulder all the costs? Should the city issue bonds or consider a property-tax assessment to subsidize such measures?

Chase said that the city council would likely vote on a green-building ordinance late in 2009. But it remains to be seen whether the new laws would be as aggressive as the A.G. would like, or if the city will take a softer, voluntary approach. Chase said he expects some combination of the two, a set of rules that would become more stringent over time.

“The attorney general may force us to do things differently,” Chase conceded. “But I think it would be a bit onerous to be too heavy-handed right out of the chute, particularly in this economic climate.”