(8/5/09) Editorial – SCAG Decision Should Not be Based on Scare Tactics and Misinformation

Bill Coburn is publisher of the SierraMadreNews.Net website, and a 15-year resident of Sierra Madre. He is also Executive Director of the Sierra Madre Chamber of Commerce, however the opinions stated in this article are Mr. Coburn’s alone, and should not be construed in any way as representative of the views of the Chamber of Commerce, which has not taken a position on this issue.

An item on an upcoming Sierra Madre City Council meeting agenda has caught my attention, and I suspect possibly the attention of many of the readers of this newspaper.  The Council is being asked to consider whether or not Sierra Madre should continue its membership in the Southern California Association of Governments, (SCAG). 

According to SCAG’s website, “Over the past four decades, the Southern California Association of Governments has evolved as the largest of nearly 700 councils of government in the United States, functioning as the Metropolitan Planning Organization for six counties: Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura and Imperial. The region encompasses a population exceeding 18 million persons in an area of more than 38,000 square miles.

As the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Association of Governments is mandated by the federal government to research and draw up plans for transportation, growth management, hazardous waste management, and air quality. Additional mandates exist at the state level.”

So, assuming they’ve stated who they are accurately (and I have no reason to believe they would misstate this information in such a highly public forum), that means that as a member, Sierra Madre is able to have some say in the “research and drawing up of plans for transportation, growth management, hazardous waste management and air quality” for the Los Angeles metropolitan region.  Conversely, I would assume that if we are not members, that means that these decisions will be made without any input from Sierra Madre, and the residents of Sierra Madre will have dictated to them what SCAG has determined will be done, based on its federal mandate.

Also from the SCAG website: “The fundamental question of why SCAG was created is best answered in the words of Ventura County Supervisor John Montgomery back in 1966, who said, ‘Regional planning is not a matter of if, but rather when and who. Regional planning must come via cooperation and mutual assistance. Regional planning will (either) be accomplished through local governments working together or by big brother mandates from state and national governments.’

Our neighbors, small and large are all members: Bradbury, Arcadia, Duarte, Monrovia, Pasadena, Azusa, El Monte, La Canada/Flintridge, Rosemead, San Marino, South Pasadena, all have joined the nearly 150 city members of SCAG. The only area city that is not a member of SCAG is Temple City.

So for a nominal membership dues fee, Sierra Madre can participate in planning its future, or it can choose to save that money, and have SCAG dictate to it what it has decided Sierra Madre is going to do (or not do). Seems kind of like a no-brainer, right? Why would we surrender our opportunity to provide input into the future of this region?

But it’s not that simple, because of SCAG’s role in implementing the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) program. According to the SCAG website: “The Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) is mandated by State Housing Law as part of the periodic process of updating local housing elements of the General Plan. The RHNA quantifies the need for housing within each jurisdiction during specified planning periods. The current planning period is January 1, 2006 to June 30, 2014. Communities use the RHNA in land use planning, prioritizing local resource allocation, and in deciding how to address identified existing and future housing needs resulting from population, employment and household growth. The RHNA does not necessarily encourage or promote growth, but rather allows communities to anticipate growth, so that collectively the region and subregion can grow in ways that enhance quality of life, improve access to jobs, promotes transportation mobility, and addresses social equity, fair share housing needs. “

More on RHNA from the SCAG website: “Every city and county in California must adopt a comprehensive “general plan” to govern its land use and planning decisions. All planning and development actions must be consistent with the general plan. The general plan housing element must be periodically updated using the latest RHNA allocation plan. A housing element must first include an assessment of the locality’s existing and future housing needs. This assessment must include the community’s “fair share” regional housing needs allocation (RHNA) for all income groups (very low, low, moderate and above moderate) as determined by the regional Council of Governments (COG).

The purpose of the Housing Element of the General Plan is to ensure that every jurisdiction establishes policies, procedures and incentives in its land use planning and redevelopment activities that will result in the maintenance and expansion of the housing supply to adequately house households currently living and expected to live in that jurisdiction. When a local government fails to adopt an updated housing element, or adopts an element that does not comply with the law, the general plan is invalid and a local government may not proceed to make land use decisions or approve development until it has adopted a valid housing element.“

For this reason, the City recently conducted a Housing Element Workshop, to get input from the residents. Some folks seem to have the mistaken impression that RHNA requires growth, when it is in fact, just a tool to be used in planning for potential growth. Whether it is because they have a mistaken impression that growth is required, or they just don’t want to allow for the possibility of growth, or for whatever reason, a movement has sprung up that is trying to have us pull out of SCAG, so that, in theory, we will not as a City be required to plan housing per the RHNA program. But here’s the thing: RHNA is an assessment process performed periodically as part of the Housing Element and General Plan updates at the local level. The enforcement of the RHNA obligation lies with the Department of Housing and Community Development. Pulling out of SCAG does nothing to eliminate the requirement to conform to RHNA as part of the Housing Element update, it just eliminates the chance to influence the allocation of numeric goals at the local level. Since SCAG does far more than just housing (transportation, growth management, hazardous waste management, and air quality) by pulling out of SCAG, we’ve eliminated our ability to be part of the discussion on all these issues. The discussions about these major issues, any of which could have major impacts on Sierra Madre, will still go on, they’ll just go on without input from Sierra Madre.

Some of the folks that don’t want to see Sierra Madre remain as a member of SCAG are doing their very best to scare people into thinking that their friends and neighbors are in danger of losing their homes to the city through Eminent Domain, so that the City can conform to its RHNA numbers. Unfortunately, the facts don’t support this position. But apparently, the truth is just an inconvenience, because the same wrong information is repeated over and over again.
The following post appeared on a local website, after the recent Housing Element workshop, and had this to say in an article titled “Homes Listed as Possible Eminent Domain Seizure Targets For the Purpose of Building Multi-Family Low Income Housing in Sierra Madre.“ “Below you will find a list of those homes identified as candidates for Eminent Domain seizure should the statute be revived. Once these homes are seized by the government they would then be razed and the property used for the construction of multi-unit low income housing. The notion behind this singular act of government violence against a selected few citizens here in Sierra Madre is to jam high-density housing into what is already a very built out town.

Okay, let’s look at that. Both the headline and the first sentence of the post contain statements that are just completely inaccurate. There were no (that’s right NO) homes listed as possible Eminent Domain seizure targets. There were properties that the City identified as candidates to be zoned for higher density. That means the property owners could, should they so choose, build, or sell to someone who would build, more units on the property than it is currently zoned to allow to have built on it. In essence, they’ve possibly increased the property value for the owners, by increasing the options the owners have as to what they can do with the property. They have not targeted it for Eminent Domain, or even possible Eminent Domain.

But just to make sure, I contacted Danny Castro, Development Services Director for the City of Sierra Madre, with a series of questions I had about the workshop, and about some of the information that was now appearing on the internet. A couple of the questions dealt with this issue directly:
Coburn: Of the properties listed as potential multi-family sites, was there anywhere or any time that these sites were listed as “possible Eminent Domain seizure targets for the purposed of building multi-family low-income housing units in Sierra Madre?
Castro: No, because they are not and have not been considered as seizure targets.
Coburn: At any time, was there any discussion that “these homes (would be) seized by the government (and) would then be razed and the property used for the construction of multi-unit low income housing?”
Castro: No.

In another post, the same author, who has called for Sierra Madre to pull out of SCAG, stated “So what does this mean for us in Sierra Madre? Well, as we saw in the consultant prepared “Sierra Madre 2008-2014 Housing Element” report issued by our City planners on March 31, we too have a SCAG mandated RHNA number. And it is apparently quite a burden on this town. To the point where certain factions within City Hall actually felt they needed to identify properties as candidates for possible Eminent Domain seizure in order to meet SCAG’s arbitrary demands for high density housing.” (author’s note: emphasis mine).

Again, nobody identified any properties as candidates for Eminent Domain. And SCAG has made no arbitrary demands for high density housing. What they did was set targets. The City then attempted to meet those targets. It wasn’t that “certain factions within City Hall felt they needed to identify properties as candidates…”, it was that the City is required BY STATE LAW to do so. AB2348 requires that a Housing Element Update provide an inventory and identification of adequate sites (vacant or underutilized residentially zoned land) to meet Sierra Madre’s RHNA requirements. The way they did it was to identify properties as appropriate to be zoned at a higher density. SCAG doesn’t care whether you use high or low density housing. They don’t even require you to build the housing. They just ask that you determine how your City will meet the RHNA targets. The property owners can do absolutely nothing if they so choose. Again, I asked Mr. Castro about this:
Coburn: Slides 20-28 discuss possible sites for multi-family housing. What would be the process to make them available for multi-family housing? Strictly re-zoning?
Castro: The eight sites that were identified as potentially suitable sites are currently zoned for multi-family housing (R-3, Multiple-Family Residential, Medium/High Density), which allows a density of up to about 13 units/acre. The process, as required under state law, would be to amend the current zoning to allow for an increase (to) at least 20 units/acre, on enough of those sites to meet the state imposed housing numbers. The Planning Commission and City Council would have to review and approve the zoning change after conducting public hearings.
Coburn: I’ve heard that the City charter does not allow for the City to employ Eminent Domain. Is that correct?
Castro: The use of Eminent Domain is not a factor in the Housing Element Update. Under state law, the City’s update must provide for the “opportunity” for the development of assigned numbers of affordable and market rate housing units through use of it(s) zoning powers. The City is not required to and is not currently considering any proposals to acquire properties nor is it in any way requiring that these properties be developed with affordable housing. The property owner retains the right to determine if and when to develop their property.

Those last two sentences by Mr. Castro seem to me to be pretty significant.

An earlier post from the same website: “The dirty secret is this. In order to build the low income housing Sacramento and their toadies in SCAG are demanding, you’re going to need somewhere to build it. And since this town is already built out to the limit, you’re not going to find anywhere to do this deed without first tearing down already existing single family homes. And the only way to do that would be to seize houses through Eminent Domain and evict the families already living there. After all, isn’t that what “redevelopment” is all about? Tearing down things that already exist and redeveloping the vacated properties?”

Again, SCAG isn’t demanding the building of low income housing, only that we zone so that the option of building low income housing exists. By stating that the only way to do that would be to seize houses through Eminent Domain, the author has conveniently ignored the fact that the property owner has the option of doing the building themselves, or selling to someone who might, without the City seizing the property (they also have the right to do nothing). As to the author’s suggestion about seizing houses through Eminent Domain and evicting families living there, I asked some questions point blank of Mr. Castro:
Coburn: Was there any discussion at the workshop of the City using Eminent Domain on any of those sites?
Castro: None.
Coburn: Is the City considering the use of Eminent Domain on any of the sites listed as possible sites for multi-family housing?
Castro: No.
Coburn: …does the Redevelopment Agency have the same limitation regarding Eminent Domain?
Castro: The Redevelopment Agency does not have the authority to acquire property by Eminent Domain.

I’m not going to tell anyone how they should feel about Sierra Madre‘s participation in SCAG. But I do think that those who are questioning it and trying to determine their opinions should be able to make an informed decision that is not stoked by scare tactics and misinformation.

My personal feeling is that we should remain a part of it. As I stated earlier, if there’s an organization that is making decisions that affect our City, and we have an opportunity to have representation in the organization so that our voice is a part of the decision making process, I think we want to be part of it, rather than bowing out, remaining silent during the decision making, and then just having to accept what is decided by others about our City. I also don’t think the organization is evil incarnate, as some seem to think. But if I did, I think I’d want to follow the advice of 4th century BC Chinese general & military strategist Sun-tzu, who said “Keep your friends close, your enemies closer.”

Either way, we’d stay in SCAG.
Bill Coburn is publisher of the SierraMadreNews.Net website, and a 15-year resident of Sierra Madre. He is also Executive Director of the Sierra Madre Chamber of Commerce, however the opinions stated in this article are Mr. Coburn’s alone, and should not be construed in any way as representative of the views of the Chamber of Commerce, which has not taken a position on this issue.