Stockton General Plan Litigation Leads to Landmark Settlement on Global Warming

Over the past decade, the City of Stockton was generous in its land use approvals.  With global warming a little-known phenomenon, the City Council laid the groundwork for extensive housing developments on the outskirts of town -- even though there would be no public transit to service the new residents.  And, while Stockton voters passed an initiative that would have established an urban growth boundary to contain sprawl, a larger number passed a counter-measure that cancelled the UGB.  Throughout this period, the City’s downtown “core” deteriorated.

These problems came into sharp focus in December 2007, when the City approved a major update of its General Plan.  This update -- “General Plan 2035” -- became the subject of litigation by the Firm on behalf of the Sierra Club, ultimately leading to a landmark settlement involving the City, the Club and the California Attorney General.

General Plan 2035 proposed to double the population of the City in less than 30 years – a growth rate higher than historic growth trends and higher than projections by the San Joaquin Council of Governments.  Moreover, over 50 percent of the new development was proposed in new “villages” at the fringe of the City, beyond the current City limits.  The sprawling nature of the Plan’s development would have eliminated important open space buffers between existing urban areas and created gridlock traffic at nearly 50 roadway segments throughout the area.  

The Sierra Club’s lawsuit focused on the City’s violations of the California Environmental Quality Act.  The EIR made no attempt to examine specifically how General Plan 2035 would contribute to global warming.  While the Club had pointed out that the Plan’s sprawling development would increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through its dramatic increase in VMT (vehicle miles traveled), the City contended that any attempt to quantify these impacts would not be “meaningful.”  As the Sierra Club argued, the City’s approach disregarded the State Legislature’s recently mandated specific reductions in GHG emissions throughout the state.

Almost as soon as the Sierra Club’s suit was filed challenging the General Plan EIR, the Attorney General entered the dispute, expressing concern that the City’s sprawling development plan would undercut the State’s efforts to combat global warming.   The Attorney General’s office convened meetings with City staff to address the key environmental and planning issues; Sierra Club representatives soon joined the negotiations.

This group worked to develop a ground-breaking agreement that would require the City to encourage infill development in favor of sprawl, and to promote a transit system serving all major areas of the City.  The City would establish a program to inventory GHG emissions, initiate a process to adopt aggressive green building ordinances, and prepare a comprehensive Climate Action Plan within 24 months.  Preparation and implementation of the Climate Action Plan would be overseen by a new citizen advisory committee, comprised of representatives from the non-profit, environmental, labor, business and development sectors of the City.

After much debate and two public hearings, the City Council approved the settlement agreement on September 9, 2008.  Pursuant to this agreement, the City is currently in the process of developing its Climate Action Plan.