A state-mandated effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions is turning into a struggle by local governments to maintain control over development.
This month, Fresno County political leaders expect to vote on proposed targets for cutting emissions of those climate-changing gases -- mainly carbon dioxide from burning gasoline and other fossil fuels. In the long term, making those cuts will change how cities grow and how their people move around.
The local effort is intended at least partly to head off more aggressive targets that could be imposed this year by the state Air Resources Board, which oversees California's climate-change program.
"We felt it was prudent for us to provide a recommendation rather than letting the ARB do it on their own," said David Fey, deputy city planner in Clovis.
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Whether that strategy will work is not clear. The state still reserves the right to set more aggressive targets and may need to do so, because it is counting on local land-use and transportation measures to cut large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
An initial plan from December 2008 estimated that 5 million metric tons per year of emissions could be cut that way. That's equivalent to taking 1 million cars and light trucks off the road completely.
Local governments jealously guard their longstanding control of local land use.
The law mandating the greenhouse gas targets -- Senate Bill 375 from 2008 -- doesn't change that. It does, however, call for the ARB to set emissions targets, which the locals will have to meet or risk loss of funding for transportation and other uses.
So far, ARB officials say they are content to let local governments take the lead on the target-setting.
"They actually said that we know better than them," said Kristine Cai, a planner at the Council of Fresno County Governments, which is coordinating the local effort.
Kurt Karperos, the board's air quality and transportation planning chief, said the targets from local agencies "will guide us in identifying what's achievable."
But he affirmed that the final authority to set targets rests with his board.
A balancing act
The Fresno County group appears to be heading toward recommending a target that takes into account several other ongoing planning efforts. Among them: Fresno's plan for its Southeast Growth Area, a 14-square-mile region southeast of the city, where housing densities are being proposed that would be twice to four times as high as current levels.
It is expected to stop short of proposing the maximum emissions cuts that might be achieved. Partly that's because the locals want to hold something in reserve in case the ARB requires them to find more cuts later, one official involved in the discussions said.
Perhaps more importantly, however, planning staffers at the local agencies are afraid to propose measures that their elected officials haven't already approved, at least in concept.
"It's fine for us to model and give them some idea where we're going, but we want our City Council to weigh in on this," said Keith Bergthold, Fresno's assistant planning and development director.
A final decision on Fresno County's recommended target is expected to be made April 29 by the council of governments' policy board, composed of mayors and other leaders from throughout the county.
The big picture
SB 375 is part of a broader state effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the end of this decade.
That amounts to a 15% cut from recent levels and 30% from 2020 levels given current trends.
The single largest share of reductions identified to date comes from ARB regulations designed to reduce emissions from new cars and light trucks by 30% in 2016.
Other big shares are focused on improving energy efficiency in buildings and increasing use of renewable energy, including solar power.
The local agencies plan to provide ARB with just a narrative description of how they would meet whatever targets they propose, again fearing that sharing specific details would commit them to measures that their political leaders have not yet approved.
In general, however, the measures fall into two categories:
*Ensuring that urban development puts more people on less land than under current conditions.
*Increasing public transit use by concentrating more development in transit corridors and near "activity centers" such as major shopping and office centers.
Both of those dovetail with other long-term planning efforts in the central San Joaquin Valley, especially the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint, said Barbara Steck, the council of governments' deputy director.
The Blueprint already has been endorsed by political leaders throughout the Valley. It calls, above all else, for increased housing densities.
In Fresno County, the goal is an average of eight homes per acre in future development, compared with 3.8 under existing trends.
Unlike the planned SB375 targets, however, the Blueprint goals are purely voluntary.
To Steck, that's the biggest difference between the two.
"SB 375 is going to have more teeth," she said.