Meanwhile, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), like every other regional planning agency in California, is working to complete a state-required land-use strategy that alleviates traffic by promoting public transit, jobs-housing balance, and infill development, and preventing “leapfrog development” that gobbles up open space and stretches out commutes.
That state law, SB 375, places historic responsibilities on local and regional agencies to somehow reverse the diffusion of homes and commerce into the state’s natural resources.
So on the one hand, the state is encouraging urban-centric growth, while on the other considering dissolving key support structures for focused urban renewal (redevelopment) and open space conservation (Williamson Act). Sooner or later, local officials may find themselves caught in a conflict of mixed messages and mixed priorities from the state.
Redevelopment invests about $5 billion annually in repairing blight in California’s struggling neighborhoods. Those repairs include streetscape improvements that promote pedestrian, bicycle, and rail transit, and development agreements that leverage private investment in the challenging staples of urban life, like mixed-use housing and neighborhood-serving retail.
Josh Stephens recently found in a survey of local planners that redevelopment was considered “inherent” to the California policy landscape when SB 375 passed, and “the list of redevelopment-supported transit-oriented developments that support the vision of SB 375 goals is, literally, too long to mention.” Stephens explains how redevelopment, by its very blight-fighting nature, is an ideal tool for meeting the goals of SB 375.
Two weeks ago, the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commission voted to enter a consortium with SACOG to partner in crafting a Sustainable Communities Strategy, the land-use strategy required by SB 375. But that formal partnership, and the meetings and workshops to follow, is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how redevelopment will be – and has been – a part of SACOG’s success. Through reinvesting in its troubled downtown K Street, and matching affordable housing projects with transit lines throughout midtown, Sacramento has already positioned its urban core as a bright spot in SACOG’s regional plan.
Losing the funds and private-sector partnerships that redevelopment channels to cities’ blighted areas will make it more difficult for local and regional agencies to meet SB 375 goals.
Compounding the problem is the steady decline of Williamson Act funding that, in recent years, has threatened to turn large parcels of open space over to sprawling development. For almost half a century, the Williamson Act provided private landowners with a lower property tax assessment in exchange for agreeing to preserve their land as open space.
The state compensated counties for their revenue losses but cut these subsidies in 2008 and again in 2009. Then legislation passed last year allowing counties to reduce the terms of their Williamson Act contracts, perhaps a tacit signal of the program’s coming demise.
Perhaps the final blow came last week when the Legislature voted to cut another $10 million in Williamson Act support for already-cash-strapped counties. These losses will test the ability of counties to continue the tax breaks and, when landowners see their property taxes go up, their resistance to selling and developing will likewise be tested.
The Williamson Act’s demise will be felt most harshly in California’s interior counties, where rolling hills and expansive open space are most vulnerable to tract homes, big box stores, or other lower-cost sprawling development that detracts from the vision of SB 375.
Critics have long questioned the necessity and effectiveness of both redevelopment and the Williamson Act, and there is no shortage of empirically grounded debate on both issues. But to the extent that either program even partially advances its mission, these budget cuts will undoubtedly trend against SB 375 fulfilling its promise.
Josh Rosa is a Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commissioner