County Plan Focuses on Urban Issues, not Rural Concerns

In its Our County Plan, how does the county reconcile increasing urbanization and ecosystem conservation in unincorporated areas where loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation are major contributing factors to extinction. 

Los Angeles County’s version of the Green New Deal is being hailed as the most ambitious regional sustainability plan in the nation. Its goal is a Los Angeles County that is healthier, greener, more self-sufficient and more sustainable.

The Our County plan was unanimously approved by the LA County Board of Supervisors last month. The document took two years to draft, with input from almost 1000 stakeholders. It outlines a series of 12 sustainability goals, including meeting the requirements of the Paris Climate Agreement by creating a fossil-fuel-free Los Angeles County within the next three decades. The plan also includes nearly 160 health-related targets focusing on the communities that have been most heavily affected by environmental pollution of smog and industrial waste.

“At its heart, this plan is both a call to action and commitment to future generations,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who with Supervisor Hilda L. Solis sponsored the motion to create the County’s Chief Sustainability Officer, which led the development of the plan.

It’s a monumental project. As of 2018, Los Angeles has an estimated 10.3 million residents making it the most populous in the country, with more residents than all but nine U.S. states. LA County contains some of the highest population density in the country, including hundreds of square miles of urban sprawl, but also vast areas like the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains, and a large swath of the Mojave Desert.

“By focusing on broad, aspirational, and cross-cutting goals, we are challenging ourselves to embrace positive change by thinking beyond our current barriers to action, whether they be technological, political, or bureaucratic,” the introduction to the plan states.

Goals like “build resilient and healthy community environments where residents thrive in place” are open-ended; other goals have fixed deadlines.

Targets include clean, safe, affordable housing, and a commitment to ensuring all county residents have access to healthy food, clean air, and clean water. 

Some of the key goals of the plan include:

  • Powering unincorporated areas and County facilities with 100% renewable energy by 2025
  • Increasing urban tree canopy coverage by 15% by 2035
  • Diverting more than 95% of waste from landfills
  • Developing land-use tools to limit new development in high climate-hazard areas
  • Phasing out single-use plastic by 2025 to ensure a cleaner ocean and less landfill waste
  • Cutting back on imported water by sourcing 80 percent of water locally by 2045
  • Ensuring that all residents have safe and clean drinking water and that rivers, lakes and the ocean meet federal water quality standards
  • Leading efforts to make sure that at least 50% of new housing is built within 1/2 mile of high-frequency transit by 2025
  • Supporting construction of more than half a million affordable housing units by 2045 to improve public health and community sustainability

Some proposed projects would benefit all residents, like the goal to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfills and the plan to increase the amount of water that can be sourced locally. 

Most of the goals are focused on urban issues. A 50 percent reduction in car trips by 2050 is not geared towards the non-urban parts of the county, where there is no public transportation and no or few transportation infrastructure projects are planned. 

“Elimination of minimum parking requirements for all new residential units, and establishment of parking maximums within half a mile of high quality transit stops, creation and expansion of parking benefit districts, and incentives for developers to provide less than maximum allowable parking,” is equally inapplicable to rural areas.

While energy and water conservation are key goals, land conservation and habitat restoration are only mentioned peripherally. One set of goals includes ensuring that 85 percent of the population is within a half mile of a park or open space, and another target is for the county to “help make parks and public lands more accessible and inclusive and will manage them carefully so that all residents may enjoy their benefits.”

There is also a proposal to allow the transfer of development credits that would enable developers to buy the right to build bigger projects in urban areas in exchange for retiring property in wildland eras. This is a model that has been used successfully in other areas, but remains controversial.

Another target proposes: “Careful planning will ensure that our ecosystems, including urban habitats, thrive even as our region becomes increasingly urbanized,” but the plan does not elaborate on how increasing urbanization and ecosystem conservation can be reconciled in an area where loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation are major contributing factors to extinction. 

A proposal to limit development in high climate-hazard areas seems ironic in light of the board’s recent approval of a controversial wildland mega-development at Tejon Ranch in an area of “high fire hazard.” Kuehl, the cosponsor of the Our County plan, was the only opposing vote when the board approved the 19,000-home development in May.

The plan states that the county is committed to “proactively address the location of large- scale development with consideration for climate hazards such as wildfire, flooding, extreme heat, and sea level rise,” but does not address what that might entail. 

The plan’s creators stress that the planners are aware that LA County’s size and complexity create “unique governance challenges that exist nowhere else,”  but also “enormous opportunities to enact sustainability solutions at both the local and regional levels.”

“Our future depends not just on the County’s actions, but also on the 88 cities of Los Angeles County stepping up to the plate to collectively help achieve the strategic plan’s vision for sustainability,” said County Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai. “We look forward to building and growing these partnerships as we work toward common goals on behalf of all the communities we serve.”

“This is our unequivocal statement that climate change is real and that our County will not be waiting around for the federal government to create the policies and programs needed to address it. By taking this leadership role, we are positioning the County to move our region into a greener future,” Kuehl said.

 

To learn more about Los Angeles County’s Our County Plan, visit: https://ourcountyla.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/OurCounty-Final-Plan.pdf

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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