California Rule Would Charge Developers for Air Pollution

Air quality regulators in California's Central Valley have become the first in the nation to pass a rule that links the two. Developers are being required to make major efforts to reduce air pollution by planning smarter communities or paying a fee. From member station KPCC, Tamara Keith reports.

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Air quality regulators in California's Central Valley say suburban sprawl causes pollution, so they've become the first in the nation to pass a rule that links the two. Developers have to make major efforts to reduce air pollution. Either they plan smarter communities, or they pay. Tamara Keith reports from member station KPCC.

TAMARA KEITH reporting:

In California's San Joaquin Valley, agriculture may be the number one industry, but new home construction isn't far behind.

(Soundbite of construction)

KEITH: Homes are still affordable here. Land is plentiful, and in cities like Fresno, Bakersfield, Modesto and Stockton, matching red-roofed subdivisions seem to spring from the ground like a tomato crop ready for harvest.

Mr. SCOTT JOHNSON (Pesticide Salesman): Right to your right, you can see alfalfa out there and then houses. And it's quite a contrast.

KEITH: That's Scott Johnson, driving along the outskirts of Stockton. He's a pesticide salesman and has lived here for more than 30 years. He says he may be a fiscally conservative Republican, but he likes the idea of making developers pay for air pollution.

Mr. JOHNSON: Look, this was a field a couple of months ago. Oh, man, that's just--that's brand-new. I hadn't seen this one. I haven't been out here for a while. Look how fast they put them up.

KEITH: But as new homes are built away from the city center, people end up driving more. In this decade, the population in the San Joaquin Valley is expected to shoot up by 24 percent, but the increase in vehicle miles traveled is expected to be even steeper. Kathryn Phillips is with Environmental Defense.

Ms. KATHRYN PHILLIPS (Environmental Defense): People are driving farther and farther and farther to get to work, to get to their homes, between homes and work and between their homes and the rest of the things they have to do, because the homes are being built so far out.

KEITH: Vehicle emissions are the number one source of air pollution in this region, a region that has some of the most polluted air in the country, right behind Los Angeles. Facing state and federal deadlines to clean up the air and running out of big industries to target, local air regulators have looked to an indirect source of smog: sprawl. Tom Jordan developed the new rules for the regional air board.

Mr. TOM JORDAN (Air Regulator): Growth does cause air pollution, and so what we're saying is there are things you can do to develop in a better way to reduce the impacts of that growth.

KEITH: The air district used detailed computer modeling to develop the rules. Jordan says these emissions models showed just how much pollution could be reduced if builders plan their projects smartly.

Mr. JORDAN: If you can walk to the store, rather than drive--maybe not everyone does that, but some do; if you provide pedestrian facilities like nice sidewalks, bike paths, and then there are things you can do to the actual structures, making them more energy-efficient.

KEITH: The rule requires developers to reduce the smog-forming gases caused by their projects by a third. If they fail to do that, they're required to pay a mitigation fee to the air district. It works out to about $800 per house. Developers aren't happy. Tim Coyle is senior vice president of the California Building Industry Association. He says it may be a nice idea to build wide sidewalks or bike paths, but he doesn't see how that will improve air quality.

Mr. TIM COYLE (California Building Industry Association): Does it mean that scientifically, it automatically guarantees the next home we build in that green subdivision means that the family that moves in is going to walk to the grocery store as opposed to driving in their SUV? No. We don't know, and nobody knows.

KEITH: Coyle and the high-powered coalition of business, taxpayer and development groups he represents are now mulling whether to file a lawsuit to stop the new rule. Coyle says the air district may be talking about reducing pollution, but really this boils down to a multimillion-dollar tax on industry.

Mr. COYLE: This is bad policy-making, terribly imperfect or flawed science, lots of money that's being taken from the private sector. And by the way, you know who this really socks is home-buyers.

KEITH: And while the opposition to the new rule may be predictable, support is coming from some unlikely circles, including some farmers. Agriculture in the region has been hit hard by new air quality rules in recent years, and some farm groups think it's only fair the developers share the pain.

Other regions struggling with air pollution problems are watching what happens in central California. The Valley Air District has already gotten calls from other regulators from around the country.

For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in Sacramento.

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