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May 17, 2005
Transit village bill sparks land-use decision worries
4/21/2005 7:33:11 AM
By Kiley Russell
State Sen. Tom Torlakson's bill to spark a building spree around commuter rail stations is moving through the Legislature, but a provision giving regional transit agencies and the state greater control over some local land-use decisions could ignite fierce opposition.
"It's a tool cities will have in order for them to do development around transit, relieve freeway traffic and air pollution and, for many people, allow them to live closer to work," said Torlakson, D-Antioch.
The bill would allow cities to form redevelopment agencies to build "transit villages" -- high-density, mixed commercial and residential projects with affordable and market-rate housing -- around rail stations.
Before the plan can be implemented, however, the city would have to win approval from the transit agency that runs the station and the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank.
Once those two agencies sign off on the proposal, the new redevelopment agency would be able to lure a real estate developer using property tax dollars. That money would be spent as a subsidy to reduce the initial building costs.
The redevelopment agency then would collect the difference between the original property tax income of the area and the higher property taxes the area generates after it's developed, money that would otherwise go to county and state coffers.
"(The cities) initiate this. They're in the driver's seat. They have to approve (the transit village plan) to begin the process. They have to make sure the local community is OK with it," said Kerry Hamill, a legislative analyst with BART, one of the bill's sponsors.
"Then they bring it to BART or another rail provider and say this is what we've got, now you guys have to approve it," Hamill said.
Builders support the bill because it allows them to avoid planning commission and city council votes on each phase of development.
"As long as they conform with the plan, they can do it. There's not a series of discretionary approvals that need to be achieved," said Guy Bjerke, a spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Northern California.
"Neighbors and others will have their voices heard in that process. After the plan is adopted, hopefully then people will come in and build to the plan and the debate will be over and we won't be debating on a project-by-project basis. Builders wish that was the way the world worked," Bjerke said.
Republicans, however, appear not to love the bill, SB521.
"To folks on my side of the aisle this is a continual, incremental encroachment on the land-use planning done by local entities, cities and counties, by state government," said Sen. Dave Cox, R-Carmichael.
"It's a situation where, by and large, Republicans believe land use ought to be done by the local authorities and my colleagues on the other side of the aisle believe the state of California knows best," Cox said.
Walnut Creek City Councilman Charlie Abrams echoes Cox's concerns about the bill and says he's "basically suspicious" of it.
"The state needs to stay out of land-use decisions because they botch it up with all the politics involved," Abrams said.
The bill just adds more bureaucracy to an already complicated planning process and "just adds more people whose hoops we'd have to jump through," Pittsburg Mayor Nancy Parent said.
Still, not all city officials are skeptical of what would be a new land-use role for transit agencies and the state.
Dublin Mayor Janet Lockhart says she likes the idea and thinks her city, which is planning for a new West Dublin BART station, could benefit from it.
"We are the classic example of where that would work well since we don't have a redevelopment agency and there's no reason for us to form one except for around the BART station," Lockhart said.
"You're siphoning off tax dollars that go to the state and the county, but if you're doing that to benefit a specific project that benefits the goals of the state and county that makes sense," she said.
Land-use experts see the bill as a creative, if not particularly radical, departure from existing rules.
Local governments already must win state approval for development projects' environmental mitigation plans and for plans to meet state-mandated housing goals, and BART already insists on high-density, mixed-use projects around its stations, said Paul Lewis, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California.
"This (bill) makes sure that what the city does isn't in its own interest alone, but in the interest of the region as a whole," Lewis said. "It's pretty clever."
The bill is also raising some eyebrows over a provision that expands the definition of "blight" to include areas around commuter rail stations that don't already support high-density development and that aren't predominantly urban.
Redevelopment agencies have the power to take over private property in order to build a new project if that property is declared blighted.
The California Redevelopment Association believes in smart growth and high-density development around transportation hubs, but is worried the public won't support the new blight definition, said David Jones, the group's Sacramento lobbyist.
"Calling a neighborhood blighted simply because it doesn't have density is very, very troubling," Jones said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has yet to take a position on Torlakson's legislation, which is scheduled for a hearing Monday in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee Monday.Posted by Coalition Webbies at May 17, 2005 06:47 PM