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SB 375 – Landmark Land Use and Greenhouse Gas State Law Adopted

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed SB 375, a sweeping change in land use, housing and environmental law.  The law aims to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by discouraging sprawl development and dependence on car travel.

As the Governor’s press release states, the law will promote, “more environmentally-friendly communities, more sustainable developments, less time people spend in their cars, [and] more alternative transportation options”.  SB 375 helps implement AB 32’s GHG reduction goals by integrating land use, regional transportation and housing planning.

SB 375 requires regional transportation plans to include a “sustainable community strategy” (SCS) to meet GHG reduction targets for vehicle travel set by the California Air Resources Board (the state agency developing AB 32 regulations).  Projects consistent with a SCS qualify for relief from some California Environmental Quality Act requirements, which will reduce project costs, processing time and legal risks.  Importantly, SB 375 states that local land use authority is preserved – general plans are not required to be consistent with the SCS.  The bill also provides significant changes to Housing Element law, especially the timing and requirements for Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) planning.  Below is a summary of the key provisions.  For a more detailed description, click here.

A. Regional Planning Process Augmented and Strengthened

SB 375 requires each metropolitan region to adopt a “sustainable community strategy” (SCS) in its regional transportation plans to encourage compact development that aligns with regional GHG emissions reduction targets set by the California Air Resources Board (ARB).  SB 375 requires that ARB certify that the SCS will reach these targets by decreasing GHG emissions from automobiles and light trucks.  Transportation projects that are part of the SCS will have priority on State transportation money.  Although the law focuses on regional planning efforts, it specially states that it does not supercede city or county land use powers and local plans are not required to be consistent with the approved SCS.

B. CEQA Incentives for Specific Projects

Two types of projects are eligible for CEQA incentives if they are consistent with the SCS: Transit Priority Projects, and residential or mixed use residential projects.  Transit Priority Projects are defined as having at least 50% residential use, a density of at least 20 units per net acre and located within a half mile of a regional transit corridor.  Residential or mixed use residential projects must have at least 75 percent of the total square footage for residential use. Transit Priority Projects qualify for a CEQA exemption if they: (1) are consistent with the SCS; (2) meet eight environmental criteria, including no wetlands/riparian areas, historic resources, hazards or endangered species located on the site; and (3) meet seven land use criteria, including affordable housing or open space requirements.  Transit Priority projects that do not meet the exemption requirements may still qualify for a streamlined environmental review under CEQA if certain criteria are met.  The form of streamlined review includes a limited Initial Study or environmental impact review (EIR.) Residential or mixed use residential projects do not need to analyze the following impacts in their CEQA documents: growth-inducing impacts; project or cumulative impacts from vehicle trips on global warming or the regional transportation network;  or a reduced residential density alternative.

C. Alignment of RHNA and Regional Transportation Planning Process

SB 375 aligns Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) with the regional transportation planning process, creating an integrated transportation and housing planning process.  SB 375 also expands the current five-year housing planning periods to eight-years for certain cities within certain Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs).  SB 375 requires that the RHNA allocation be consistent with the SCS. The housing element adoption process remains the same, including the self-certification option.  SB 375 generally requires rezoning of certain sites to accommodate certain housing needs within specified times, with an opportunity for an extension of time under specified circumstances.