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Air District Releases Planning Guidebook To Promote Healthy Infill Development

The adverse health effects of pollution from freeways and industrial facilities on occupants of infill development has been an ongoing issue of concern.  The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) has taken various approaches to address this problem from regulations to CEQA Guidance to development of data and analysis tools.  These approaches have been criticized by developers and some environmentalists as impeding the development of infill residential and mixed use development which is a cornerstone of the “Smart Growth” movement.  Some regulations also have been challenged in court.  In its latest attempt to address this issue, BAAQMD has released “Planning Healthy Places.”  The Guidebook is of interest to agencies and developers because it provides mechanisms for building infill development that minimize health effects of pollutants on occupants.

The Guidebook focuses on “Best Practices” for reducing exposure of people to emissions and reducing actual emissions from development projects.  The main emissions at issue are fine particulate matter (PM) and toxic air contaminants (TACs).  The source of these emissions are vehicle exhaust (especially diesel) and industrial uses.  Best Practices for reducing exposure to emissions are setbacks from sources, air filters for building, and planting dense vegetation to absorb emissions (ex. finely needled trees).  Best Practices for reducing emissions are programs for reducing vehicle trips (TDM programs) and construction equipment controls.  The Guidebook also has an online mapping tool for the Bay Area which shows health risk areas where Best Practices should be incorporated and other areas where further study is recommended.  Most exposure areas are adjacent to high-volume roadways and large industrial sites.  The Guidebook also includes examples of regulations that agencies can incorporate into local land use planning documents, such as General Plans, Specific Plans and zoning ordinances.  Examples of local planning regulations are included from San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Richmond.

BAAQMD makes it clear that the Guidebook is not a regulatory document.  It provides information for agencies and developers to use in planning infill projects and minimizing health effects of local pollutants.  This guidance approach is likely in response to the controversy and litigation over attempts to regulate this area through CEQA (see our previous e-alert on the California Supreme Court decision on so-called “CEQA-In-Reverse” – the impact of existing conditions on projects).  However, given BAAQMD’s stature as the leading air district in the State, the Guidebook will likely have a significant impact on the development of local planning and zoning regulations to address this issue.