The Building Industry Association of Fresno/Madera Counties said it’s likely that no single-family projects greater than 50 units — the size that generally triggers a formal environmental review — have been approved since July 2020, likely because of new vehicle miles traveled standards. Photo by Greg Rosenke on unsplash.com

published on August 10, 2022 - 2:03 PM
Written by Edward Smith

“They’re missing out on all development,” said Mike Prandini, president of the Building Industry Association of Fresno/Madera Counties. “I have not heard of any project greater than 50 units getting approved anywhere in the county since July 1 of 2020.”

Two years after the State of California implemented an environmental review requirement on new housing and office developments intended to decrease greenhouse gases emitted during commutes, developers and planners are still waiting for governments to figure out how to make the regulations work.

Developers and planners are working to make their projects compliant with the state’s calculation of Vehicle Miles Traveled — or VMT. Local governments were tasked with calculating how many miles residents would have to travel from their homes to work or shop. The law took effect July 1, 2020, and this month, those governments are still coming out with compliance measures.

 

Adding to obstacles

The state’s goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But after record-breaking jumps in housing prices, planners and engineers say VMT requirements are adding to the list of obstacles in getting housing constructed.

Since the law’s implementation, the Fresno Council of Governments created a map outlining the VMT of different parcels for developers to follow as a general road map.

The farther away a project is from the central core of a city, the higher its VMT. For the Central Valley, where housing growth has been outward, making projects compliant has been difficult. The Fresno County average is around 16 vehicle miles traveled, with the Fresno Council of Governments recommending 13% below that benchmark to avoid further mitigation efforts. Other cities can commission their own requirements.

For Clovis with an average VMT of 19, that means dropping to 13.6, “Which is virtually impossible,” said Prandini. Amenities such as bike lanes and walking trails might give a developer a few credits, but not much more. Transit will get a development closer, but even that is contingent on the kind of transit. The highest credit is for transit along the Blackstone Avenue and Kings Canyon Road corridors.

What developers are waiting to find out is how much it will cost them for the projects that simply won’t pass muster. An escape clause exists for projects deemed financially infeasible, said Prandini. Then a city or county can override a project, but those approvals could potentially open a city to a lawsuit.

“Everyone is kind of waiting to see what the tab is going to be,” said Prandini. “What’s the cost going to be to mitigate? $12,000 a unit?”

Prandini said the City of Fresno is close to finishing their study. He expects Clovis to finish theirs later this year.

 

Providing options

The Fresno Council of Governments is working on a mitigation program to provide options for projects that can’t meet their goals, said Kristine Cai, deputy director with the Fresno Council of Governments. Some other agencies around the state are ahead of them in terms of coming up with tools for developers, but Cai said no one has come up with a good program yet.

Initial studies in San Diego placed fees as high as $500,000 a unit, but those studies were quickly dismissed, said Cai.

For that reason, Prandini said he wasn’t aware of any new subdivisions greater than 50 houses being submitted in Fresno County going back to July 1, 2020. Others have said that could be related to other factors. Multiple requests to verify the information with the City of Fresno were not returned. Requests with Clovis could not verify or deny the claim. Officials with Clovis did say that they suspect many planning maps for mid-size housing subdivisions have not been submitted because of VMT.

The City of Clovis Tuesday held a workshop for a supplemental environmental impact report they hope to put before City Council in September. The document would provide a blanket VMT study for different parcels to make it easier for developers to do environmental impact reports —something Provost & Pritchard Principal Planner Sara Allinder said will help.

Finding out how much a project impacts emissions makes an environmental study even more complex. Reviews already can cost tens of thousands of dollars. And being so new, VMT best practices have not been established.

While there are many factors that could trigger an environmental impact report, Allinder said in some cases, VMT could be the only trigger.

Dirk Poeschel, planning consultant with Land Development Services said developers want to run environmental reports before projects begin to know if their VMT counts even qualify them to begin work.

Those studies can cost $100,000 to $150,000.

A project he was working on near Willow and Nees avenues scored high according to VMT maps, even though his project was surrounded by development.

“How could it possibly be that developments score high VMTs when a trip to the grocery store requires nothing more than a walk across the street?” Poeschel asked. Poeschel said the model is overly complicated with little flexibility.

It also works against multi-family development. Under VMT models, the higher densities count toward the number of trips that elevate a project’s VMT impact.

“While it has a lofty purpose of trying to pressure people into higher density, it’s actually been a club used against very good projects,” Poeschel said.


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