More than 140 cities and counties in California intend to update their long-term plans over the next two years to include environmental justice, meaning air pollution, water quality, and other factors affecting disadvantaged communities would get a closer look.
Local governments across the country typically have general plans that spell out long-term visions for land use, open space, housing, safety, and other planning factors. Some local governments haven’t updated their overall general plans since the 1970s, said Erik de Kok, a program manager in the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.
California became the first state to pass a law requiring local governments as of 2018 to add an environmental justice element if they update two or more aspects of their general plans. But the law doesn’t include enforcement authority or fines to ensure compliance.
Still, local governments must identify disadvantaged communities within their borders and identify ways to reduce health risks, promote civil engagement, and prioritize improvements that address the needs of such communities, under the law.
California the first state to make such an explicit requirement, said Sagar Shah, a planning and community health manager for the American Planning Association.
“Traditionally, low-income communities and African-Americans have been pushed into living aside pollution,” Shah said. “We know, historically, planning policies have led to a lot of equity issues, led to a lot of people getting exposed to these pollutants.”
The association created a video series in July about equity in planning, saying in a news release that “the planning profession sadly bears responsibility for perpetuating policies and systems that have reinforced racism in the past, especially against the Black community and other communities of color.”
‘Bad Things to Poor People’
California Sen. Connie Leyva (D) said she authored SB 1000 requiring environmental justice consideration in planning documents after touring her district and realizing how zoning had brought polluters near low-income areas and communities of color.
“We do a lot of bad things to poor people,” Leyva said in a phone interview. “If you’re going to build a warehouse, don’t put it in someone’s back yard.”
She tried to help one community, Bloomington, fight the San Bernardino County Supervisors in Southern California from rezoning a residential parcel into commercial, paving the way for a warehouse on 17 acres. The county approved the zoning change in September 2018.
Bloomington, where 19% of the population is in poverty and nearly 83% of residents are Hispanic according to Census documents, is listed as a disadvantaged community by the state.
The warehouse is now nearly completed and a giant wall stands 60 feet from the fence line of Thomas and Kim Rocha, who fought the development for five years. Truck traffic from construction is so loud that the Rochas plan to move out of their home, where they intended to retire.
“They knew it was wrong,” Kim Rocha said. “They knew what they were doing to my community. It will really be ruined for families.”
Once the warehouse is operational and trucks are passing by each day, the air pollution will likely get worse, Thomas Rocha said.
“You just don’t do this to residents,” he said. “You don’t do wealth over health.”
The San Bernardino supervisor for the Bloomington area didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
‘A Different Level’
The 140 communities responded to a 2019 Annual Planning Survey conducted by the state that their plans would be updated to include environmental justice. That represents 25% of the towns and counties that have general plans.
Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Santa Ana are in the midst of creating updates. Before Leyva’s bill became law, only National City, near San Diego, and Jurupa Valley, east of Los Angeles, had updated their plans to include environmental justice.
Leyva proposed a bill this legislative session that would have would have required environmental justice be in all general plans by 2023. She shelved the bill because the coronavirus pandemic led to a shortened term.
General plans typically are updated every eight to 10 years, with more frequent requirements for housing.
De Kok, of the governor’s planning office, said local governments have an obligation to know whether water, soil, and air contamination could affect any disadvantaged communities, which often bear more of the burden from polluters. That means looking at transportation, warehouses, ports and other aspects of a community’s makeup.
“A lot of planners haven’t done a deep dive on why their community is disadvantaged,” he said. SB 1000 “took it to a different level in really asking local governments to do a better job.”
Viewed as ‘Burden’
California’s environmental justice laws date back to the 1980s. But the state has a long history of marginalizing communities.
In the 1800s, it banned tribes from doing prescribed burning, which thins forests and prevents wildfires. In 1890, San Francisco required people with Chinese heritage move to areas set aside for slaughterhouses, hog factories, and other businesses that affected quality of life.
The new focus on environmental justice is welcome but still needs work, advocates say, noting that some local governments have embraced the idea while others haven’t.
“People really don’t want to do this,” said Jennifer Ganata, senior staff attorney for Communities for a Better Environment. “A lot of them see it as a burden and want to get through it, to check a box.”
Huntington Park, a city near Los Angeles where more than 90 percent of residents are Hispanic or Latino, said it didn’t need to include environmental justice because it started updating its general plan before the law took effect, even though the process was ongoing, Ganata said. Its draft 2030 general plan focuses on land use, mobility, and resource management.
The Huntington Park planning office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lack of Enforcement
The state can offer guidance to communities but it has no regulatory authority to enforce the general plan requirements, de Kok said.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra established an environmental justice unit that as part of its mission works with local governments to ensure they comply with SB 1000. The office has sent comment letters to communities notifying them of what’s required.
Kerman, a community near Fresno, has twice been advised it needs to incorporate “additional [environmental justice] EJ policies that specifically target the unique needs of disadvantaged communities,” according to a letter from the attorney general office.
Meanwhile, an effort to bring more environmental justice to California beyond updating general plans recently failed.
A bill that would have created a environmental justice division within the state agency that oversees oil and gas extraction died in a legislative committee. It would have required the agency to consider buffer zones around oil and gas facilities to minimize the impact to homes, schools, day care centers and other sensitive facilities.
Assembly member Al Muratsuchi (D), who authored the failed bill, said he included the environmental justice portion to be sure that oil and gas facilities got additional scrutiny because of pollution issues.
“We can’t fight systemic racism without environmental justice,” he said.