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September 04, 2009

Sustainable Development Is Integral to Reducing Impacts of Climate Change
    by Robert Kropp

Report by the UCLA School of Law calls for commitment from local, state, and federal governments to remove impediments to sustainable development projects. -- Development of sustainable communities is increasingly being seen as an essential alternative to traditional real estate development, in which preference for suburban and exurban development has led to increases in vehicle miles traveled and demand for electricity, as well as disturbance of ecosystems. All of these factors have contributed to unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

A recently published report, entitled Rem oving the Roadblocks: How to Make Sustainable Development Happen Now, analyzes the roadblocks that prevent sustainable development, and provides solutions to overcome those impediments. Although the report specifically addresses sustainable development in California, its analyses and recommendations can easily be applied to communities nationwide that are struggling with the issue.

According to the report, the features of sustainable development include "compact, walkable developments that feature housing located within walking or biking distance of services and jobs." Because residents of sustainable developments drive less, they produce fewer GHG. One study cited by the report found that the average urban American has a smaller carbon footprint than the average American, because of less car travel and energy use. spoke with Ethan Elkind, the Bank of America Climate Change Research Fellow at the UCLA School of Law, who said, "In California, greenhouse gas emissions that come from driving represent 40% of the state's total. Improved fuel efficiency alone is not going to lead to sufficient reductions. People are going to have to drive less."

The report describes a number of legislative steps that California has taken to monitor and mitigate the environmental effects of real estate development. The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32) requires that regulations be developed that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. According to the report, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) "estimates that better land use decisions could result in GHG reductions of five million metric tons by 2020 (with greater reductions to be realized thereafter) and calls for local government to reduce community-wide GHG emissions by 15% from 2005 levels by 2020."

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires that local governments address climate change impacts when considering development projects. Under the law, suburban and exurban development, which typically result in higher GHG emissions, are likely to face more stringent mitigation requirements.

Yet despite the enactment of such legislative guidelines in California, significant barriers to the widespread adoption of sustainable development persist. One such roadblock addressed by the report is the lack of adequate infrastructure. Since sustainable development often occurs in previously-built jurisdictions, many of the sites lack rail and bus rapid transit, and have inadequate sewer or utility systems.

In order to address the absence of adequate infrastructure, the report recommends that funding at federal, state, and local government levels be redirected away from projects that encourage development sprawl. It notes a number of cases in which investment in public infrastructure yielded significant economic returns.

Citing a study from Reconnecting America, a national non-profit working to integrate transportation systems and the communities they serve, the report refers to a $73 million investment in light rail in Portland, Oregon, that attracted $2.3 billion in private investments within two blocks of the route. A $20 million investment in rail transit in Little Rock, Arkansas, attracted $200 million in investment, and a $60 million investment in rail transit in Tampa, Florida, attracted $1 billion.

Asked by about the role that such vehicles for community investment as municipal bonds can play in sustainable development, Elkind said, "Such investments are critical for solving the infrastructure barrier. Sustainable communities are among the most desirable places to live in the state, and further development of them makes for excellent investment opportunities."

"Rebalancing our investments in the infrastructure away from highways and toward mass transit will keep us from having to jack up transit fees every time there's a budget shortfall," he continued.

The report identified uncertainties in the regulatory process as another roadblock to sustainable development. Existing neighborhoods often contain local government restrictions and resistant neighborhood groups that hamper the pace of sustainable development. Here, the report recommends that local governments lead the way, with effective advance planning and the involvement of all stakeholders from the concept stage onward.

The challenge of meeting the expense of sustainable development in existing communities is considerable, given that it is often more expensive than low-density development. According to the report, "Auto-oriented developments…often do not have to pay for the externalities they create, such as worsened air quality, loss of open space and more intensive energy and water usage."

The report recommends that local, state, and federal governments respond by shifting the tax burden away from sustainable development. Instead of forcing developers of sustainable communities to pay impact fees, local governments could fund such development with fees exacted from sprawl projects. Both state and federal governments could create corporate and personal income tax incentives for sustainable development projects.

"Lack of money is a big stumbling block to sustainable development," Elkind said. "Developer fees are drying up, and the development of these communities needs to begin happening now."

The fourth roadblock identified in the report is skewed tax incentives, by which local governments can gain greater revenue from sales taxes than from property taxes. The report calls for the elimination of incentives that lead local governments to view land as primarily a vehicle for raising revenue.

The report concludes by calling for greater advocacy from such non-governmental organizations as environmental groups and sustainable development advocates, and recommends that they join forces with sustainable developers to increase their political influence. Traditional builders have to examine their practices in the light of environmental regulations that are likely to be enacted at the federal level.

And policy makers, the report concludes, will have to display a strong commitment to "remove the roadblocks to sustainable development and make it the norm for our communities."

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