Anybody remember this movie? Based on a book by Philip Wylie, it started with the thoughtful gaze of astronomers using science and telescope technology to protect us. The trouble was, they observed a planet (Zyra?) hurtling towards us and presaging the impending doom of all on earth. Lucky for us, the collision that I have been observing is much less likely to wipe out all the dinosaurs or destroy the planet. (Don’t doubt that there are still dinosaurs – they just walk and talk like mammalians.)
Our regulatory regimes are in collision mode. On the one hand, we have adopted policy, law even, that tells us to rebuild our inner cities for so many good reasons. Infill development uses existing infrastructure and reduces the need for chewing up further green fields, reduces travel requirements, reducing greenhouse gasses, and striking a blow for lessening the burdens we place on mother earth. Which brings me back to our collision of worlds.
One policy of our Californian laws is designed to encourage infill – perhaps best exemplified by Government Code, section 65041.1 (…”to protect environmental…resources…and promote…efficient development….”) but that policy sometimes runs headlong into another set of our laws – those that regulate air quality. We want people to build near mass transit stations, we even have a name for it – Transit Oriented Development – but in doing so we create potential for conflict between the new residents and the transit (or other urban activity) they came to be near. Our laws on air regulation include a broad and powerful section – not unlike the California Civil Code – regulating “nuisance.” Our Health & Safety Code, section 41700, relates a wide swath of circumstances that can lead to action by our regional air resources boards. “Annoyance” by a number of people gets it going.
This is not a theoretical conflict. Those industrialized urban activities that are regulated by the air quality boards do not think that they are on easy street. They live under an exacting regime of regulation – so the mere potential that a bunch of (dare we use the word?) residents moving in next door is frightful. This is because the regulations that the air boards administer have increasingly stringent means of calculating the impacts of emissions on next door neighbors. We lived through just such a conflict in San Diego. An apartment house was planned across the street from a historic assembly plant. The apartment house would have included some affordable units – creating a walk across the street environment for plant management and workers alike. But the plant’s management only saw the possibility that they would be more stringently regulated, and, worse yet – even if they met their regulatory targets there would be a hundred people who could file “nuisance” claims that could make the air board take action. The Executive Director of the air agency showed up at a hearing to make that very point. “I’ve seen it happen before”, he said, “you let these people move in and there will be complaints!”
We all approach the world from our own points of view. To the air resources board the possibility of simplifying their own regulatory concerns by eliminating the potential for future nuisance claims was the dominant motive. The “regulation of air” world collided with the “efficient development of infill” world and, in my view, the dinosaurs prevailed. I mean that not in the sense of our regulators being insentient reptilian beasts – but by being large creatures (agencies) slow to adapt and change. I think the moral here is that our survival may require regulatory systems with a bit more capacity to adapt to the changing circumstances of our urban existence.
Epilogue. Just in case inquiring minds want to know: the conflict in San Diego was resolved by nixing the apartment building (it was a stunningly good-looking design by a prominent local architect) and allowing the building of a hotel. The difference? Our regulatory system requires that impacts of air emissions be assessed with the presumption that residents are in their apartments 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for seventy years. Really. But in a hotel such assumptions are not required. Go figure.