California lawmakers have passed a bill that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by promoting improved land use and public transportation as an alternative to sprawl.  Under the measure known as SB 375, compact development projects would receive fast-tracked approvals, and public transit initiatives laying out concrete carbon reduction goals would receive funding priority.

Supporters of SB 375, including environmentalists, home builders, and municipal leaders, are optimistic Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will sign it into law once a state budget resolution is passed.

Momentum for the bill, spearheaded by California Senate President pro-tem elect Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), picked up speed in recent months as state officials set about implementing the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which mandates a 30% reduction in the state's greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020.  Under SB 375, specific targets for carbon reductions would be established by the state's Air Resources Board, the entity responsible for implementing the 2006 law.

Hailed as the first legislation in the nation to align transportation funding with housing development patterns and carbon reduction policy, SB 375 acknowledges what clean air advocates have been arguing for some time: that higher fuel efficiency standards alone cannot achieve the state's ambitious CO2 reduction goals and that serious efforts to reduce Californians' driving habits are necessary.

"That the cradle of car culture is the first to tackle the global warming problem of long commutes is a watershed moment," said Tom Adams, board president of the California League of Conservation Voters, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Home builders initially opposed the legislation, fearing that it might impede suburban development projects that are already underway and increase the cost of building and owning a home. But, after some haggling, the California Building Industry Association is now among the bill's proponents. "Every stakeholder gave up some important sacred cows," CBIA Chairman Ray Becker told the Wall Street Journal

Passage of SB 375 would mean builders would have to endure the added red tape of a permitting process that involves regional (not just local) planning boards. But they will also benefit from a reduction in regulatory hoops such as mandatory environmental impact studies and other approval roadblocks.

"Smart Growth is not a new concept, but we now have a perfect storm brewing to give the idea traction," observes Suzanne Reed, California program director for the Center for Clean Air Policy. Higher gas prices are contributing to a rise in exurban foreclosures, she notes, and aging Baby Boomers are demanding smaller homes near public transit. 

The bill still has its detractors. The California Chamber of Commerce continues to oppose it on grounds that it would inhibit economic growth and give rise to frivolous lawsuits. Realtors have voiced concerns that the measure could limit the availability of affordable housing and negatively affect a housing market that is already struggling under the weight of stagnant inventory.

But Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, counts among those who see no other alternative (his perspective being focused on the already densely populated San Francisco community and its surrounding counties).  "For a region that values open spaces, plus clean air and less cars–yet is expecting 1.4 million new residents in the next 20 years–it is the only way to go," he says.

In the big picture, global warming is indiscriminate. "We need to plan as a region, not just as individual cities and counties," State Senator Steinberg asserted in a recent interview with The Planning Report.  "Air quality, traffic congestion, and carbon know no artificial boundaries.  These issues must be tackled regionally."

Jenny Sullivan is senior design editor at BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA, Los Angeles, CA.