Central Valley

Air-quality deadlines threaten Central Valley development

SACRAMENTO -- Development could be stalled in the Valley if city officials don't act quickly to comply with a new air-quality law that takes effect this summer.

The law, passed by state lawmakers in 2003, requires that cities and counties in the San Joaquin Valley update general plans to include goals and strategies for reducing air pollution. Without the revisions, the general plans would not comply with state law -- leaving cities vulnerable to lawsuits seeking to halt developments.

The deadline for cities in Fresno and Kern counties is June 30. Other municipalities have until Aug. 31, 2010.

Yet cities have been slow to make the changes, said Seyed Sadredin, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which is charged with reviewing the amended plans.

"It takes months, if not years, and it's quite costly" to update plans, he said. The district is not sure how many cities are in compliance with the new law, but Sadredin said a lot "haven't really satisfied all the requirements yet."

If officials fail to meet the deadline, but still proceed with major land-use decisions, "a court could invalidate those decisions and other development projects as well," according to a memo by the state Senate's local government committee. For instance, an environmental group that doesn't like a new subdivision could seek to stop it by arguing that a city's general plan doesn't comply with state law.

The upshot: Building permits, rezoning and other land-use decisions could all be put on ice, according to the committee.

The committee, which oversees land use legislation, recently reminded the Valley air district about the pending deadline.

Officials in some small towns had never heard of the new law.

"We haven't started the update on the general plan," said Lupe Estrada, a planning officer for tiny San Joaquin, on the Valley's west side.

"At this point, I'm a little bit in the dark about it," said Ray Hoak, the building inspector for Orange Cove. "There are so many state regulations that it's almost impossible to keep track of them."

The legislation, AB 170, was written by then-Assembly Member Sarah Reyes, a Fresno Democrat. It requires that cities and counties in the region amend general plans to include:

Reports on local air-quality conditions.

A summary of air-quality regulations.

A "comprehensive" set of goals, policies and objectives to improve air quality and measures to carry out those goals.

Plans must be submitted to the Valley air district 45 days prior to the law's deadline. That's May 17 for Fresno County and its cities. The district will soon send out a letter asking cities to report back the status of their general plans.

Not long after the law was passed, the air district updated its air-quality guidelines for general plans. The 225-page document, for instance, calls for land-use policies that encourage walking, rather than driving -- such as developing vibrant downtowns accessible by mass transit.

It's possible that cites are already in compliance with AB 170, even if they don't know about it.

"It's news to me, but we already have an air-quality element in our general plan," said David Fey, deputy city planner for Clovis.

For instance, the city already gets clearance from the air district for new projects, he said.

Fresno County knew about the law and "I think we're on solid ground already," said Lynn Gorman, the county's deputy planning director.

The county devotes a section in its general plan for air quality.

One policy requires that commercial roads, driveways, and parking areas "be constructed with materials that minimize particulate emissions." Another section encourages telecommuting and teleconferencing for county employees, in order to cut back on driving.

The city of Fresno is working to update its plan by the deadline.

Cities that are behind the curve can still seek relief from the state, according to the Senate committee. The Governor's Office of Planning and Research, which oversees environmental documents, can grant extensions for compliance with AB 170 -- but only if cities are able to explain why they are late.