Lynne Plambeck | County: Planning for Climate Change?

The County of Los Angeles has just released a draft of its new “Sustainability Plan.”

First, don’t get me wrong. I would love to have this plan work. We need to change where and how we build, protect open spaces and groundwater recharge areas, stay out of high fire hazard areas, encourage walkability and other means of transportation, and avoid auto-oriented urban sprawl. SCOPE has been saying this for 30 years. And yes, we have also litigated in desperate attempts to get our city and county to pay attention to their own planning policies.

So forgive me if I am skeptical. 

Didn’t the city and county support a One Valley, One Vision General Plan update only five or so years ago? It was supposed to do all of the above by increasing density in the city and reducing it in the outlying areas. While the city has increased density in the Old Town Newhall area, sprawl marches on in the county, fueled by decades-old tract maps that supposedly cannot be made to conform.

“The county will consider resilience and climate adaptation in all future planning and development decisions. The dangers we face from climate change are immense. Every action we take now to protect our homes, communities and infrastructure should better prepare us for the future and protect us against climate risks and their disproportionate impacts” (draft plan, page 44).

As recently as two months ago, SCOPE appealed a two-decade-old tract map on the edge of Canyon Country to the county Regional Planning Commission, asking that, among other updates, solar features be included. At the commission hearing we were told that it was “too late” to address climate change in this old tract map. It took going to the Board of Supervisors and a nudge from new state law to make a difference.

When we took the pictures of residents running away from the Sage fire in Pico Canyon with walls of flames shooting up behind their homes, that did not concern commissioners enough  to say “no”  to additional housing in that very high fire hazard area. Our concerns about the difficulty of evacuation with only one exit from the canyon didn’t worry them either. 

The new Sustainability Plan will supposedly ensure and enhance the vitality of our urban forests. Both our city and the county have oak ordinances but routinely allow trees to be cut. The oak massacre on the Gates Industrial project (euphemistically called Needham “Ranch,” as huge concrete walls are erected) being the worst of all. Around 1,400 oaks were permitted for destruction. This is not to mention infringing on a wildlife corridor and the ring of open space that we were supposedly going to keep around our city. When the developer came before the city Planning Commission recently to request a variance to increase the height of a building over the city’s three-story limit, we asked the city to require solar roofs. 

No, that could not be done.

“The practice of building industrial facilities near majority black and Latino communities, for example, continues to expose residents of those communities to hazardous amounts of air pollution” (plan, page 9).

Yes we know. That’s why we objected when the county approved a massive landfill expansion next to Val Verde and across the highway from the proposed elementary school and housing in the first phase of Landmark Village. We brought these issues to their attention, but nothing could dissuade them from approving the project.

I guess that’s what makes me skeptical. Another day, another plan, but all of these good intentions depend on the ability of our elected and appointed officials to just say “No.” They have the power to do that now with every conditional use permit that comes before them. They could say, “No, we will not approve this project because the burden of proof is not accurate or plainly false.” They could say, “NO, those over-riding considerations are not sufficient to approve this project.” But that never happens.

I was struck by a line in Naomi Klein’s book about climate change, “This Changes Everything.” She cited a student activist at a climate conference who said to the audience, “You have been negotiating and planning for my entire life and carbon emissions have only increased.”

So forgive me if I am skeptical. I really do hope this plan works. But county, why not just start now? 

Lynne Plambeck is president of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment.

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