These protests are the latest signal of a longstanding distrust among conservatives toward “smart growth,” an elastic yet politically electrified term for the principles and practices that promote a more sustainable land use pattern for future development. Conservatives who line up with traditional political headwinds tend to view smart growth as another regulatory encroachment on economic freedoms, private property rights, and the independence of the individual in society.
But a closer look at the underlying principles and potential outcomes of smart growth, juxtaposed with the bedrock conservative approach to conservationism, fiscal management, and free market policies, suggests there are elements of smart growth that are fundamentally conservative, albeit often intertwined with definitively anti-conservative elements. The net relationship between conservative principles and smart growth policies, therefore, is exceptionally sensitive to how the policy is implemented at a detail level.
Much of the conservative interest in smart growth lies in its mandates for infrastructure. Smart growth offers a reversal for the sprawling land use pattern that dominated state and federal infrastructure spending over the last half-century. Three generations ago, as a car appeared in every garage, roads were built with the expectation that every American wanted to live, work and shop in separate districts and use their cars to get between them. This “drivable suburban” model, as developer Christopher Leinberger calls it, became the exclusive way to build in postwar United States.
But the car-centric way of life has its consequences, rather prominently in California, that should particularly offend conservative sensibilities. Ever-growing commutes add stress to our far-flung roads and highways that we can scarcely afford to maintain; in the next ten years, Californians face half a trillion dollars in needed infrastructure improvements, much of it in transportation. Tailpipe emissions and leapfrog development also threaten to squander our natural resources.
And, for many of us, the car culture has actually diminished our freedoms, rather than enhanced them. The everyday Californian actually has fewer choices for how to travel because biking, walking and transit are infeasible from a growing percentage of homes. And real estate pricing trends show demand for urban residence is on the rise, and frustrated by the artificial barriers of our built environment.
To the extent that smart growth diversifies the real estate and transportation markets, and challenges government agencies to make more efficient use of the public’s fiscal and natural resources, conservatives have a stake in policies like SB 375.
One of the chief prerogatives in SB 375 is conserving open space. Forty years ago, this would have been a Republican standard. Governor Reagan and legislative Republicans viewed California’s natural resources as one of its more valuable assets, and enacted policies to responsibly conserve it. SB 375 places the onus on infrastructure planning to continue that tradition.
Conservatives may also appreciate the ability of developers to sidestep some of the thorny hurdles in the CEQA review process, as well as bulletproof their CEQA documents from litigation, for projects that comply with the SB 375 regional land use strategies. Since it was enacted in 1970, CEQA has cast a long shadow over California’s construction and related building industries, and attracted no shortage of attempts by free market conservatives to trim its regulatory quills.
Yet SB 375 easily surpasses all prior conservative achievements in streamlining the CEQA process, at least since the Permit Streamlining Act of 1977.
Rather than punch arbitrary holes in the CEQA process, as countless proposals have previously tried, SB 375 authorizes routine circumventions of certain procedures in exchange for adhering to a sustainable growth plan. The law does not gut CEQA but rather rationalizes it in a way that serves both the free market and conservation efforts.
SB 375 also ties state and federal infrastructure spending directly to government’s ability to achieve these plaudits. As such, the law holds government spending to higher and more numerous standards, and focuses public dollars more aggressively on performing services that the market and conservative movement want.
By reining new growth into a more compact footprint and rationalizing CEQA, SB 375 has the potential to temper the rate of depreciation of our highway system, take some pressure off our long-term debt-financing of infrastructure, conserve open space, and tailor public works to free up developers’ answer to the market demand for urban staples like mixed-uses, transit, and walkable communities.
Of course, there are some aspects of SB 375 that are more difficult to reconcile with conservative principles. Libertarian conservatives naturally chafe against zoning codes and other restrictions on private property. And although these measures are not explicitly required by SB 375, stricter zoning will almost certainly accompany the law as it is implemented on the local level, especially in housing.
Another land use peeve is Kelo-style eminent domain actions, often the assertive government tool for spurring the kinds of infill development that SB 375 requires. Again, although SB 375 does not strictly require these actions, its goals for compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented development tempt “public benefit” takings.
But perhaps most importantly and inextricably, SB 375 operates on an axis of climate change. The SB 375 strategies that preserve open space and optimize public works will be approved on the sole basis of their ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Because the conservative movement almost uniformly rejects climate change policies, the law’s essential goal of cutting greenhouse gases may pit its every element, even those that are conservative on their own merits, against the Tea Party constituents who show up to planning sessions.
The challenge of implementing SB 375 in a way that advances the public’s wishes is adjusting that Rubik’s cube of conservative ideals cross-hatched with smart growth policies to find a tolerable net relationship, and then repeat for every other group with the force of collective will to represent a public interest.
Break out your Rubik’s cubes and get comfortable.
Josh Rosa is a Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commissioner