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Energy and Californian land use planning

My primary concern is that California’s State, regional, and local government infrastructure continues to ignore the realities of the energy challenges that lie ahead. We make land use planning and development project decisions without sufficient regard to the eventual energy consequences. In order to avoid these mistakes, the California Legislature must revise the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to include a specific section on energy, including project energy needs by resource type.

Energy and the CEQA Process

We are a voracious consumer of energy. We have developed an energy intensive economy and lifestyle. Our culture assumes energy will always be inexpensive and readily available. Our values, laws, regulations, social customs, ambitions, and social progress have been inexorably linked the ever-increasing consumption of coal, oil and natural gas. Material abundance and population growth mirror energy consumption. The freedom of personal mobility is ingrained into our psyche. These things, we believe, are a natural right.

They are not.

We can no longer automatically assume California will always have enough mobile and stationary fuels to satisfy the energy demands of a growing population. Oil prices increased 212 percent from the spring of 2003 to the summer of 2006, and promise to be volatile from here on out. Resource nationalism exists. Shortages are inevitable, and many believe we are at – or near – the peak of world oil production. The pending oil supply crisis will be followed within two decades by an equally devastating crisis in the availability of natural gas.

Oil and natural gas issues must be addressed with candor. The challenges of alternative fuels must be examined. A comprehensive program of public education must include a positive endorsement of prudent energy resource management, energy efficiency and conservation, ecologically responsible energy production and consumption, and the development of alternative energy resources. Oil and natural gas depletion will inevitably force extensive cultural change. Of particular interest is the development of a constructive response within our local government infrastructure, the implementation of a pragmatic national agenda, and the formation of productive partnerships between private and public organizations.

Within the context of this emerging reality, urban sprawl is an unsustainable model for land use and transportation planning. Increasing fuel prices, as a percentage of total income, will have a greater impact on lower income families. An increasing number of Californians will be forced into car pools, ride sharing, and public transportation services. Many lower and middle income Californians will seek housing that is closer to where they work. This transition, in turn, will compel many communities to rethink their local ratio of jobs to housing, the need for higher density zoning, and access to public transportation.

Unfortunately, local government land use planning and real estate development frequently reflect a firm belief that nothing will ever change. We have enough oil and natural gas. We will always have enough energy if we just increase the efficiency of energy consumption, enforce energy conservation, and add alternative energy resources to our energy mix. Thus, highway planning continues to assume the growth of personal vehicle traffic. Zoning ordinances continue to encourage urban sprawl.

Is energy reality moving faster than energy politics?

Allow me to provide two specific examples.

Martis Valley

The proposed 25,000 acre Martis Valley Community Plan called for the development of over 6,000 new housing units – enough development for a total urban population of around 20,000 – plus up to 600,000 square feet of stores and restaurants, and three golf courses, on 25,500 acres along California Highway 267. The Martis Valley Community Plan is very typical of development proposals now before County and Municipal agencies throughout California. It assumes there will always be enough fuel to heat the planned homes and commercial space, as well as enough fuel to support the transportation needs of the community.

We need to remember that any new development going through the approval process will be expected to provide residential housing and commercial space for a period of more than 50 years. It is therefore incumbent on planners to give careful consideration to the following long term questions: What will these people use for heat? How will they cook their food? Are there adequate resources for diesel and gasoline fuels? If there are petroleum shortages, will they be able to use wood and coal for heat?

The Placer County Board of Supervisors has jurisdiction over the approval process. Like most California county and municipal governments, it is not required to address – or even acknowledge – the impact of oil and natural gas depletion on the project, the environment, or the people who will live and work in the development after it has been completed. There is no mechanism for addressing energy resource depletion in the development approval process.

We should be wary of this omission. The development plan for Martis Valley is a really good example of obsolete public policy. In an era when we Americans should be developing a less energy intensive culture, our political leaders want us to believe there is an unlimited supply of natural gas and oil to sustain whatever lifestyle we chose.

Union Pacific Railroad yard, Sacramento

Various proposals have been made to develop the former Union Pacific Railroad yards in Sacramento into a mixed use development. The most prominent, of course, is to provide a stadium for the Sacramento Kings basketball team, along with housing, retail and office space. Considerations for the development of this 240 acre master planned site have included financing, infrastructure, utilities, freeway interchanges, road construction, parking spaces, retail space, residential housing, office space, cultural amenities, concessions, open space, environmental clean-up, impact on adjoining properties, and public transportation to the proposed stadium. It has been proposed the Amtrak depot will eventually be part of a new train/bus/light-rail station.

Unfortunately, no one has thought to ask where Sacramento would provide space for passenger trains, light rail cars, and busses if there were a surge in the demand for public transportation. It also does not appear Sacramento has a clear and contemporary vision for its public transportation infrastructure.

Once again, community leaders have gone ahead with a development proposal without giving any thought to energy demand, supply, conservation, or efficiency. It has simply been assumed we will always have enough low-cost gasoline, diesel, propane, and natural gas fuels to meet our needs. There has been no attempt to reorient Sacramento’s housing around the neighborhood community concept.

That is VERY shortsighted.

If the CEQA EIR process required the county – not the developer – to certify the availability of fuel resources for a period of 50 years, then the consequences of potential fuel shortages and escalating costs could be included in the planning process. If, at some point in time, the county will have to substitute local public transportation for individual personal transportation, encourage the development of affordable housing for people who work within the development, and adopt a plan for alternative heat and cooking fuels, then the economic and environmental consequences of this development will have been properly recognized. In addition, an enlightened CEQA EIR process will provide specific guidelines for community development, including sections on energy conservation and efficiency, building materials, and “green building” concepts; the development of Neighborhood Communities where most of the things a family needs on a day-to-day basis are within walking distance from their home; and transportation, service and communication options for the community.

Local government can make a positive contribution to the successful creation of localized, self-sustaining, neighborhood communities; interconnected public transportation systems, and the development of an energy efficient infrastructure. Community leaders must be willing to challenge conventional wisdom with pro-active adaptation and practical flexibility. Existing assumptions, policies, codes and regulations may not be appropriate in an energy detensive world. We must be willing to review our infrastructure investment decisions within the context of an energy detensive environment. We must pro-actively include civic, fraternal, and religious organizations in our long term planning for community services.

I challenge the California State Legislature to fix this inexcusable gap in public policy.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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