Posted on Sun, Nov. 16, 2003

Smart growth bent could spur friction

By Jim Wasserman

ASSOCIATED PRESS SACRAMENTO - Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger could become the nation's newest Republican governor to try to curb suburban sprawl in favor of rebuilding existing cities, experts say, a path certain to rile some California builders and real estate interests who contributed $2.5 million to his campaign.

Schwarzenegger, who took his campaign cues regarding growth from an environmental group, has projected a bent toward "smart growth" which favors transit, rebuilding existing cities and slowing development on vacant farmland. His Web site has pledged wholesale restoration of declining urban environments, criticized "fiscally unsustainable sprawl" and promised new incentives to build homes on blighted, bypassed land in older cities. "He seemed comfortable with a lot of it and that's why it's there," said David Myerson, of Los Angeles-based Environment Now, which assembled much of the growth-related material on Schwarzenegger's Web site. Schwarzenegger's development priorities also include rapidly cleaning up an estimated 90,000 blighted and contaminated city properties around the state for new stores and houses, and breathing new life into old neighborhoods with fresh parks paid for with money from state bonds. [OUR BOND RATING IS "JUNK"]

In another hint of his possible priorities, Schwarzenegger's transition team includes several experienced proponents of downtown redevelopment in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, but not a single major current suburban subdivision builder. Though no one knows for certain how the incoming governor will manage growth in a state of 36 million people which swells with 600,000 newcomers yearly, mostly from births, analysts believe the action hero-turned-governor's new administration could become a turning point in a state widely known nationally as a laggard in growth management. "I have every reason to think the basic principles are understood by Arnold and are going to be acted upon," said former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery, a Schwarzenegger transition team member who launched one of California's most striking downtown rejuvenations.

Already, Schwarzenegger is being asked to intervene in one of the state's biggest suburban-style growth proposals, an entirely new town of 70,000 people on a remote grazing plateau 60 miles north of Los Angeles. He's also pledged incentives to install solar power systems on half the new homes built in California after 2005. Both are likely to put him in delicate spots with powerful development firms that bristle at state interference, and have already dubbed a similar legislative proposal for widespread solar systems a "dream killer" that will cost home buyers $25,000 extra each.

But for millions of Californians who endure marathon commutes, live in expensive housing they can barely afford and cope with a sprawling megastate that hasn't written a statewide growth plan in 25 years, Schwarzenegger represents hope for bolder solutions to the state's drawbacks than his cautious predecessor, Gov. Davis, who studiously avoided the phrase "smart growth." Indeed, much of Schwarzenegger's strongest support on Oct. 7 came from suburbs where residents can afford homes, but must endure some of California's longest commutes. "More regulation is not the answer to poor land use planning," said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Karen Hanretty. "We need to invest in existing urban areas and remove current barriers to smart growth." [YIKES!!]

That's led to speculation by analysts, including Bill Fulton, publisher of Ventura-based California Planning and Development Report, that Schwarzenegger could follow in footsteps of other progressive Republican governors in growth management, including New Jersey's Tom Kean and Massachusetts' Mitt Romney. Fulton, noting that statewide growth management is typically considered a Democratic issue, wrote recently that "moderate Republicans are often the most credible purveyors of innovative land-use ideas."

But that may conflict with agendas of Schwarzenegger's major campaign contributors, many of them suburban builders with thousands of acres planned for growth in Southern California's Inland Empire, the Central Valley and San Francisco's East Bay. Developers who showered Schwarzenegger with dozens of $21,200 campaign donations, are on track this year to build 187,000 new homes, with most of their 134,000 single-family homes planned on vacant land.