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Lynne Plambeck: Weak wording takes teeth out of general plan

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: May 19, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 19, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Tuesday night, the city planning commission approved a general plan update that plans for the Santa Clarita Valley’s population to reach nearly 500,000 people and accounts for a 121-percent increase in growth. According to the commissioners, they had to do it because it was better than the old plan.

Being a skeptic, my first thought was, “How many of them have even read the old plan?” Our old general plan had some very good tools in it.

Granted, the planning commission and the City Council didn’t follow the plan very often when approving development, and the city tended to approve plan amendments or zoning variances whenever they felt a project might not quite fit the plan.
So one has to wonder why we had a general plan anyway. But at least if a resident really wanted to hold council members’ feet to the fire, the goals and policy language in the plan was strong enough to get them to follow it.

Not so for the new plan. It is filled with language such as “where feasible,” “encourage,” “promote” and “may.” Use of “shall” has disappeared. Except for a few lonely examples in the air-quality section, apparently there to address the climate-change issue and avoid problems with the attorney general, the binding language of “shall” has entirely disappeared from the plan.

In the new plan, our commissioners have seen fit to make the goals and policies that are supposed to guide growth in our valley entirely unenforceable.

A prime example is traffic. While claiming to improve air pollution, the goal for traffic was increased from a level “C” in the old plan to accepting level “D” and “E.” 

What does that mean to you and me? It means that it is OK to approve future development, even if the project will put so many new trips on the road and increase traffic to the point that none of us can get anywhere. That level of traffic was not permitted in the old plan.

One also has to wonder how we will improve air pollution at the same time we increase traffic.

We have seen this unenforceable language before with the hillside and ridgeline ordinance. While protecting our hillsides was a goal that the community really wanted, the “where feasible” language snuck into the final ordinances. The council members told the public they were protecting our ridgelines.

They did all the mapping and required studies in the ordinance, but when a developer wanted to grade a ridgeline, enforcing the ordinance was just not “feasible.” 

Gate King Industrial, Riverpark, Portabella, all were granted permits to remove ridgelines. The ordinance is not enforceable.

That brings me to this odd concept of One Valley, One Vision. While a strong comment letter has once again delayed the county’s portion of the plan from the attorney general’s office, our own plan with exactly the same language moves forward.

After discussing the Santa Clarita Valley’s failure to meet reduced ozone levels, and citing our “extremely hazardous” air-quality rating, the attorney general’s letter cites the county’s environmental report.

“[It] concedes exposure to ozone can cause serious decrease in lung functions and increased risk of death from lung disease. Children chronically exposed to ozone concentrations found in the South Coast Air Basin may suffer life-long damage to their lungs.”

It’s all one valley. What is occurring in the county portion is also occurring in the city portion, but since the letter was not addressed to the city, our commissioners apparently believe it has no affect on them.

The attorney general’s letter also discussed the language issue. It states “most of the measures and policies identified are unenforceable or vague, directing the county only to “promote,” “encourage,” “support” or “investigate” various methods to reduce driving or committing the county to use the measures only “where feasible” or “where appropriate,” without providing any criteria for the circumstances under which a measure will be considered “feasible” or “appropriate.”

The county has delayed its planning commission approval to try to address these issues. We at the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment say to the city, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

If this is really a One Valley, One Vision plan, the city must take these comments — and those of the residents in this Valley — seriously and address these issues with strong and enforceable language.

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


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