11-28-08Merced Sun-StarStill ticking...Scott Jason, Reporters' Notebookhttp://notebook.mercedsunstar.com/still_tickingI checked in with Mayor Ellie Wooten today to see whether 60 Minutes has come out to interview her about the area's foreclosure problem. She said she's still working out the details with the show's producers and expects them to head out soon. On a different topic, Wooten said she's heard half the town has been talking about running for mayor. Her term ends in November 2009. Well, not half the town, but quite a few names.Budget cuts? Bad economy? Foreclosures? Sign me up. So far Michele Gabriault-Acosta said she's going to run. Other possible candidates include Councilman Jim Sanders (he said he's waiting until after Thanksgiving to decide), Councilman John Carlisle (he's said he's not going to run), Councilman Bill Spriggs and even outgoing Supervisor Kathleen Crookham. Wooten said Crookham told her she wasn't planning to jump back into politics after leaving the Board of Supervisors in December.Once the filing deadline comes within sight, I'm sure others will join and some will rule it out. But it often proves wise to clear the field and get your name out as soon as possible.Who'd you like to see as the next mayor?Our View: A harsh light on stem cellsIndependent panel looks at research institute after 3 years, $600 million in spending.http://www.mercedsunstar.com/177/v-print/story/568754.htmlAfter three years and an expenditure of $600 million, the governance of California's stem cell research institute is starting to get the scrutiny it deserves from an independent panel.On Thursday, the Little Hoover Commission held its first hearing into the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the quasipublic agency financed with $3 billion in bonds that voters approved in 2004.The hearing revealed, once again, that this institute's 29-member governing board is rife with potential conflicts; that it is overly large and unwieldy; and that it awards multimillion-dollar grants in a manner that favors secrecy over accountability.The most striking testimony came from Kenneth Taymor, executive director of the UC Berkeley Center for Law, Business and the Economy.Taymor, who has been watching the institute's operations for three years, noted that nearly everyone on the institute's governing board -- medical school deans, university officials -- has some sort of financial interest in the grants being awarded.Even with officials recusing themselves, the board's deliberations, he said, have the feel of "a club that was allocating money among themselves" based on preordained decisions.Experts at the hearing also testified about the unusual executive structure of this institute, in which operational duties are shared between the institute's president and its chairman. Each position has its own staff and reports back to the governing board.But because of the way Proposition 71 was written (by developer and stem cell activist Robert Klein II), the governing board can't fire the chairman or have control of his staff or operations.Klein, of course, designed this structure for a reason: He alone has served as its chairman.This is troublesome stuff, yet it doesn't appear the Little Hoover Commission will recommend sweeping structural changes, even though the institute still has more than $2 billion left to spend.Downsizing its governing board, eliminating conflicts and stripping the institute's chairman of operational authority would require a constitutional amendment to Proposition 71. Based on their discussion Thursday, members of the Little Hoover Commission don't want to go that far.That's too bad. Without real reforms, Klein and his board will continue to operate like a club, spending taxpayer dollars without the normal safeguards of other public agencies. Rail system faces federal funding hurdleModesto BeeMulti-tasking canola: Calif. miracle crop?...TRACIE CONE, Associated Press Writer...11-27-08http://www.modbee.com/state_wire/story/514215.htmlFIVE POINTS, Calif. — A hardy but pedestrian plant is doing triple duty in California's agricultural heartland, absorbing a salt that once deformed waterfowl by the millions, creating clean-burning biofuel and nourishing cattle with the leftovers.Crop-crippling selenium in soil and groundwater makes the arid west side of the San Joaquin Valley a challenge for farmers, whose diesel tractors have been blamed for helping cause the worst air quality in the nation.But farmers, water managers and agriculture researchers are closely watching an experiment using canola plants to absorb the salt from soil and water. The seeds are then crushed to extract oil for blending into environmentally friendly biodiesel.If that were the end of the story, it would be just another case of farmers turning food into fuel. Yet at John Diener's Red Rock Ranch in this town 60 miles southwest of Fresno, the selenium-rich canola byproduct has an even higher calling: cattle feed naturally infused with an essential micro-nutrient.In a trial, Diener's canola meal was fed to dairy cows on the east side of the Valley, where selenium does not occur naturally and has to be added to food rations."It's all part of what we have to try to do here to turn a profit," said Diener, who also grows almonds, tomatoes, grapes and corn on 5,000 acres. "The controversy of the day is taking ground for food crops and using it to make energy. This is taking ground that isn't good for anything right now."Whether canola can cure the valley's groundwater and soil problems and become a viable crop is the challenge facing researcher Gary Banuelos of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research station in Parlier, who manages test plots at Diener's ranch.There is urgency to the effort because the ongoing drought and court-ordered water rationing to protect threatened fish species means farmers who have relied for decades on state and federal water deliveries via canals are being forced to turn to groundwater pumping.Irrigation water that passes through the soils picks up toxins as it percolates. And what to do with that drainage has vexed farmers, water managers and attorneys since the Bureau of Reclamation's drainage ponds at the Kesterson Reservoir closed in the 1980s after selenium caused often-fatal birth defects in millions of waterfowl. If the USDA's experiment is successful, officials say they will try to convince other farmers in the region to start planting canola and other selenium-tolerant plants."These challenges force farmers to become smarter, and that's where science comes in," Banuelos said.Diener installed drainage pipes under some of his fields to funnel the percolating water to the once-fallow areas where it irrigates canola and other salt-resistant plants such as prickly pear cactus and poplar trees.If Diener, 57, can find a crop that can grow profitably using marginal soils and groundwater, he can increase his farm's productivity, help solve the drainage issue and perhaps make farming economically attractive to his adult children.The canola crop yielded the oil that Diener blended with regular diesel to power his tractors.For eight weeks this summer, Banuelos fed six pounds of the leftover canola meal each day to 36 Jersey and Holstein dairy cows at California State University, Fresno as part of their 100-pound rations, eliminating the need for adding the critical dietary salt.The cows did well, Banuelos said, and produced a milk with trace amounts of selenium, a potential cancer-fighter that humans need in small amounts for good health.Diener is readying his fields for his second crop of canola, with yields of $300 an acre that pale next to the $6,000 an acre he can earn growing almonds on his prime land. But the potential to sell it as a dietary supplement for some of the San Joaquin Valley's 2.5 million dairy cows holds promise."It's potentially the most valuable part of the process," Diener said. "In the end, we're capitalists."UC Merced plan to be discussedTopic is impact of expanding campus...Bee Staff Reportshttp://www.modbee.com/local/story/514830.htmlMERCED -- The next step in the proposed expansion of the University of California at Merced and its environmental effects will be discussed at a public hearing on campus Tuesday night.The event is open to the public. It will run from 5 to 7 p.m. in the university's California Room, 5200 N. Lake Road.Comments will center on the draft environmental impact report on the university's future development of 815 acres and that of a neighboring university community.The meeting is a joint effort between UC Merced and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.University officials must get a permit from the Army Corps before expanding. The environmental impact report is part of the permitting process.In its fourth year, UC Merced has about 2,700 undergraduate and graduate students. At completion in a few decades, the campus would have a capacity of 25,000 students.At three volumes totaling more than 1,100 pages, the environmental impact report investigates the impact of the proposed expansion on prime farmland, biological resources, groundwater and surface water quality, and traffic and road safety.It also evaluates ways the development could reduce negative effects.The comment period on the environmental impact report runs through Jan. 5.Comments also can be sent to bsamuelson@ucmerced. edu or UCMerced@usace. army.mil before Jan. 5.UC Merced's application is available at the Army Corps Web site, www.spk.usace. army.mil/organizations/ cespk-co/regulatory/PNs.UC Merced kicks med school proposal into high gear...Maria Pallavicini, vice provost for health sciences and dean of the School of Natural Sciences at the University of California at Merced. http://www.modbee.com/opinion/community/story/514848.htmlThe University of California at Merced began planning for health sciences and medical education programs before undergraduate students arrived on campus in fall of 2005. After three years of comprehensive planning, in May, the UC Board of Regents authorized UC Merced to continue planning for a school of medicine. Thanks in large part to support from the valley community, including elected officials who represent the region, UC Merced accomplished an important early milestone and is entering the next phase. The coming months will be intensely busy as we work to finalize the medical school proposal. It is our goal to submit the full proposal to the regents in summer of 2009. A key component will be to define a trajectory and timeline with key milestones that must be achieved to become an independently accredited medical school.Another crucial element of the proposal will be a comprehensive description of how organizations in the valley will play essential roles in the new school's education, research and clinical programs through affiliation and partnerships. Dr. Frederick J. Meyers, professor and chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at UC Davis, joined UC Merced as executive director of medical education and academic planning. Meyers has a distinguished career in cancer medicine and research, palliative care, and in medical education. The campus also retained the Washington Advisory Group, a respected firm that specializes in strategic advising services. The first task of WAG will be to assist in extending a previous review of the potential to develop a network of organizations in the valley interested in and eligible to partner with the campus and in defining specific roles, responsibilities and contributions. Prospective partners will be evaluated on criteria such as their willingness and ability to sustain a long-term relationship with the UC Merced School of Medicine; experience with medical education; interest of staff in faculty appointments; availability and variety of patients willing to participate in education and research; and, particularly, potential to develop public health studies. The need to increase access to health care is so great across the valley that there is a desire to be in all locations from the onset. However, to satisfy the body that accredits medical education programs and to uphold the quality associated with the University of California, our partners must be those that best meet the required standards and have a mutual interest in being involved in medical education and research. The new school will help increase the number of physicians practicing in the region, particularly those capable of treating patients of diverse backgrounds. It will extend research throughout the valley and foster the discoveries that improve health. The medical school will be an economic spark for the region and offer another opportunity for area students.High standards have been set for the UC Merced School of Medicine. The valley and its residents deserve nothing less.Establishing a UC medical school is a long-term process. The approval of campus and systemwide faculty, the UC Office of the President and the UC Board of Regents, and funding from the state Legislature are necessary. Provided the proposal meets with all university and state approvals and there is commitment for new funding, the UC Merced School of Medicine is planned to open in 2013-15.With 31 percent fewer primary care physicians and 51 percent fewer specialists practicing in the valley than in California as a whole and with the valley population growing at twice the rate as that of the state, the need for a UC medical school in the region is now. Fresno BeeValley agenda pushed in D.C.Lawmakers see hope for rail, river projects...Michael Doyle / Bee Washington Bureauhttp://www.fresnobee.com/local/v-printerfriendly/story/1040557.htmlWASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley lawmakers are adapting their 2009 agendas to fit a new president, a reconfigured Congress and a chaotic economy. They face a complicated political environment filled with high hurdles, fresh openings and no guarantees of success. All Valley lawmakers want to see an official Armenian genocide commemoration. That has a chance, given President-elect Barack Obama's stated support. And every lawmaker has at least one pet project they want to pursue. "With the new president-elect, it's going to create an opportunity for federal support for high-speed rail," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, when asked for his new year's agenda. High-speed rail illustrates how the post-election shakeout hits on Capitol Hill and at home. It's a longstanding love for Costa, buttressed by California voters' recent approval of a $10 billion bond measure for what ultimately is seen as an 800-mile, $45 billion project. Congress, with more Democrats coming on board and with Obama's blessing, now will craft an ambitious economic stimulus package. Costa wants high-speed rail funding included, and Obama sounds like he could be sympathetic. "Why aren't we building high- speed rail in America ... putting people back to work, saving on energy?" Obama asked while campaigning in Michigan in September. The economic stimulus bill appears likely to total roughly $500 billion, providing lawmakers myriad opportunities to shovel in other local projects as well. It will face conservative opposition -- Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, already is warning against a bill "that's just a grab bag" -- but it also enjoys considerable legislative momentum. The economic stimulus bill will be only one major issue before the new 111th Congress. Within a few weeks of Congress returning Jan. 3, for instance, lawmakers anticipate the Senate will approve a massive public lands bill that includes legislation to restore the San Joaquin River. The bill will fund channel improvements and other work needed to get water flowing below Friant Dam next year, with salmon being reintroduced by 2013. Even opponents of the ambitious river restoration bill now concede it's likely to pass. "That's going to be done shortly unless something happens between now and January," said Nunes, a vocal opponent. Another big San Joaquin Valley water push is expected in January, when Costa said he and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein will introduce a bill targeting irrigation drainage on the Valley's west side. This complicated bill would turn the San Luis Reservoir over to the Westlands Water District and forgive the district's multimillion-dollar debt to U.S. taxpayers. In exchange, the water district would assume the expensive responsibility of cleaning up tainted irrigation runoff from fields. A bill as inevitably controversial as this could take a very long time to complete. Valley conservatives hope once more to revise the Endangered Species Act on behalf of farmers and ranchers. This is a long shot, as similar efforts have collapsed since 1995. "Nothing happens around here without obstacles," said Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa. In still other cases, national priorities will be felt locally. Nunes, for instance, anticipates a lot of work on health care, as a member of the powerful House committee that oversees much of the industry. Nunes said health- care reform could be crucial to the Valley, which struggles with high poverty levels and relatively high rates of those without insurance. Personnel shifts likely will shape agendas, though not necessarily in predictable ways. Obama never campaigned in the Valley, and neither Costa nor Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, endorsed him early when it might have invited the most reciprocal loyalty. On the other hand, the Valley can claim some hooks into Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel formerly served as political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee under Merced County native Tony Coelho. That was 22 years ago, so the thread might be slight, but Valley representatives could still tug on it. "He really learned politics in Tony's shop," Cardoza said. "He understands the Valley." The new White House liaison to Congress, Phil Schiliro, has a more immediate California connection, through several decades of working for Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles. Cardoza was only half joking when he said he knows at least the White House will now return phone calls from California Democrats. Agendas, moreover, will be shaped by what others do. In a Capitol Hill coup, Waxman gained chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Waxman is an aggressive supporter of industry regulation, including anything that affects air pollution. The Valley has some of the nation's worst air pollution. Waxman's chairmanship "signifies a turn to the left on issues of global warming and energy," Radanovich said. Applications for Habitat and Native Plant Enhancement Accepted Now...Natural Resources Conservation Servicehttp://www.fresnobee.com/556/story/1040910.htmlThose interested in establishing or improving wildlife habitat on farm or ranchland are invited to apply for help through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The new sign up period for the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) begins immediately running through Friday, January 23, 2009. The WHIP program provides 75% of the cost of approved practices undertaken to benefit wildlife. The program was reauthorized last year under the new 2008 Farm Bill. While the purpose of the program remains enhancing wildlife habitat on private or Tribal land, eligibility is now limited to private agricultural landowners. Projects to improve habitat for threatened, endangered and other species of special concern may receive priority. California State Conservationist, Lincoln "Ed" Burton, said that while no specific allocation had yet been made to California, in recent years the State has received between one and two million dollars in WHIP funds. Potential projects, according to Assistant State Conservationist Alan Forkey, include restoring native plant communities (or removing noxious weeds) to enhance the vegetative species upon which wildlife depend. Revegetation of riparian areas can be especially beneficial, Forkey says. The WHIP program is a competitive conservation program reauthorized in the 2008 Farm Bill. All program applicants must submit project proposals which will be ranked according to environmental benefits to wildlife. The ranking criteria as well as eligibility and application procedures are available at http://www.ca.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/whip/ or by contacting your local county NRCS office. Sacramento BeeHome Front: Improvement seen in forceclosure picture...Jim Wasserman http://www.sacbee.com/103/story/1433044.htmlIs the foreclosure phenomenon at last beginning to peak in California?Home Front is hearing rumblings that October saw a "meaningful decline" in various foreclosure filings for the first time in two years. The familiar industry trackers – MDA DataQuick, ForeclosureRadar and Foreclosures.com – all acknowledge the change.They've watched a steep drop in notices of default, those formal warnings issued when borrowers fall two or three months behind on payments. They've seen drops in the number of houses auctioned on the courthouse steps. They've watched the same for trustees deeds recorded with county offices as the final action of foreclosure. What does it mean?It's still early to speculate whether this might be the beginning of the end. No one wants to raise false hopes in a state that has already seen 275,000 households hand their keys back to the bank since January 2007.Yet the immediate direction is clear. MDA DataQuick analyst Andrew LePage, said, "Trustees deeds in Sacramento, statewide, everywhere, are trending down from September to October. It's a meaningful decline."Sean O'Toole, chief executive officer of ForeclosureRadar, said a 39 percent drop in the number of California homes auctioned on courthouse steps from September to October "was a huge drop, much more than anything we would have expected."There were 14,042 auctions in October, compared with 23,049 in September, he said.Alexis McGee, president of Foreclosures.com, reported a 22 percent drop nationally in October home repossessions compared with September. She said October's tally was the lowest since May."The nation's foreclosure free fall may be subsiding," she said recently. McGee's theory is that "efforts by lenders, banks, organizations and government entities to work with strapped homeowners to avoid foreclosures are beginning to pay off."LePage and O'Toole have similar hunches."What we have seen over the last 60 days is a lot of announcements around foreclosure moratoriums and loan modification programs," said O'Toole. He also cited Senate Bill 1137, which makes lenders try harder to talk with California borrowers before foreclosing. That legislation prompted a noticeable slowdown in notices of default as early as September.The good news, said O'Toole, is that the number of foreclosures may continue falling in the short run. The bad news is an abundance of new loan modifications could be pushing the foreclosure problem out three to five years."It's sort of like, 'let's put these people all in teaser rates and hope it goes away.' It's sort of a Hail Mary pass," he said.Most people will clearly root for the first scenario. Home Front will watch and keep you posted on what develops.One thing is for sure in mortgage lending: Foreclosing on families and evicting them during the holidays is a sure ticket to bad press.Some think that's partly why U.S. mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have declared a holiday foreclosure moratorium.The two said nobody gets the boot from Nov. 26 to Jan. 9.But that's just 16,000 mortgages nationally. Locally, some borrowers are so far down the foreclosure road with lenders that it's too late. In Sacramento County, evictions continue with no pre-holiday lull in sight, said Sgt. Gary Shintaku of the Sheriff's Department Civil Division."One of our guys in the south county had nine evictions today, and four are for foreclosures," he said Tuesday.Foreclosure evictions have leveled off north of the American River in recent months, Shintaku said. But south of the river in Sacramento County they're still rising slightly, he said."As we're coming to the holidays, it's still the same," he said, "the status quo."Here's a news flash about the surge in Sacramento-area home sales since April: 2008 sales have already passed last year's 12-month total of 33,267.The 2008 January through October tally: 33,961 sales of new and existing homes in Amador, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties. That's according to MDA DataQuick.This year's sales burst has 2008 resuming a normal pattern in which sales totals are higher than the previous year.That was the case from 1995 through 2004.In 2005, 2006 and 2007, sales were lower than the previous year.It's safe to say that price cuts of 20 percent to 34 percent the past year – driven primarily by sales of banks repos – played a key role in the return to tradition. Stockton RecordMorada group plans suit over Mariposa Lakes...David Sidershttp://www.recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081128/A_NEWS/811280320/-1/A_NEWSSTOCKTON - The Morada Area Association said Tuesday it will sue Stockton to block construction of Mariposa Lakes, a 10,562-home subdivision on the city's southeast side.The association said the project would deplete groundwater and otherwise harm the environment, claims the city denied.Mariposa Lakes, developed by John Verner and Gerry Kamilos, is planned to be built over 25 years and to house about 33,000 people. In addition to houses, apartments and commercial space, it is to include an Amtrak station and a site for a community college satellite campus.Litigation by the Morada Area Association, a group of east San Joaquin County residents, has been expected since the City Council approved the project last month. A lawsuit likely will be filed this week, association President Richard Shaffer said."I think it's going to be a fairly voluminous file," he said.In addition to its environmental claims, the association has objected to the timing of the development's approval. Stockton, which has been especially hard hit by the nation's foreclosure crisis, has an abundance of vacant homes, Shaffer said.City and project officials have said construction would begin only when the housing market rebounds. In his support of Mariposa Lakes and other planned development, Mayor Ed Chavez has said it is prudent to plan now for future population growth.Kamilos said Tuesday that the development would benefit, not harm, groundwater conditions. He said a groundwater recharge program at the site will put into the aquifer twice as much water as the project takes out.The Morada group has said the city overestimated the amount of water from rivers and streams that would be available for the project. The city's environmental review of the development was flawed, group members have said.City Attorney Ren Nosky said Tuesday the city's environmental review of the project was sound. He said the city and the association would meet in an attempt to resolve the dispute out of court."We hope to have some productive discussions," he said.Voters in 2004 approved a measure Verner put on the ballot to protect Mariposa Lakes from a growth-limiting measure also on the ballot that year.The subdivision is to be built on 3,810 acres of farmland south of Farmington Road, east of Mariposa Road. It is one of several suburban villages called for in the city's General Plan and is one of the first housing projects required by the city to include special fees and taxes on homeowners and the developer to account for growth's impact on police and other city services, officials said.Agreed — or notStockton gives Spanos sweet deal to change development plan...Editorialhttp://www.recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081128/A_OPINION01/811280303/-1/A_OPINIONWhen is an agreed-upon development plan no longer valid?When the developer decides a change is wanted or needed, and the governing body that approved the project acquiesces.That is the situation today with the A.G. Spanos Cos. and its previous deal to build 935 apartments or other high-density housing units in Spanos Park West.The company built roughly one-third of the agreed upon units but says there's no more room.That's because Spanos built a shopping center and sold land to Wal-Mart for a yet-to-be-built Supercenter.Spanos wants out of the original agreement. In a deal negotiated by City Manager Gordon Palmer, Spanos will be allowed to build multifamily housing elsewhere or pay a per-unit fee of $2,000. Spanos' choice. And a pretty sweet choice it is given that the company has 10 years to build or pay, and $2,000 (the company originally offered $1,000 a unit) is a lot less expensive than building apartments. Company officials say Spanos really does want to build, not pay. After all, building is what developers are about. It's possible a lot of apartment units may be built in a new Spanos development already approved or in one about to come before the City Council. Maybe in both.It all feels a bit nebulous. To the Sierra Club's Eric Parfrey, it feels "pretty insulting." He wonders why the city even bothers.Good question. There is another side, of course, and that's the eagerness the city showed in recent years for Spanos' retail development at Interstate 5 and Eight Mile Road.Why? Sales taxes, one of the main sources of city revenue.There is talk that the Spanos Cos. will build apartments downtown. Could happen, although plans for a large apartment project on the south shore of the Stockton Deep Water Channel east of Interstate 5 have been put on indefinite hold by The Grupe Co., Stockton's other major home-grown developer. Grupe, like Spanos, is pushing ahead with other massive residential developments on the north side of the city.So when is an agreement not an agreement? When city officials loose sight of the overall needs of the city for affordable housing and infill construction.San Francisco ChroniclePublic hearing for UC Merced environmental impact...Merced Sun-Starhttp://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/11/28/state/n100814S72.DTL&type=printableThe ongoing effort to develop the University of California, Merced campus away from sensitive wetlands will get a public hearing Tuesday.The focus will be on a new environmental impact report on the university's expansion plans.UC Merced has revised the plan, shrinking the size of the campus to 2,766 acres from 3,025 acres. It says the location of proposed buildings has been moved to create the "environmentally least-damaging alternative."The Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing the project because the campus imperils wetlands that are home to endangered species.A Corps document says about 85 acres of water bodies will be eliminated by campus development. Under the larger footprint, 121 acres would have been affected.The public can comment on the report through Jan. 5.HERCULESFranklin Canyon purchase fund grows...Robert Selnahttp://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/11/28/BAD014DMKV.DTL&type=printableHundreds of acres of rolling hills perched above Hercules came closer to being permanently protected from development this week when a conservation group, which has promised to buy the land, received a $100,000 donation. The San Francisco Foundation awarded the money to the Muir Heritage Land Trust to help secure 423 acres of Franklin Canyon, an area about the size of Treasure Island that connects Hercules and Martinez. The funds were the first contribution to a purchase which will allow for 1,100 acres of contiguous open space linking the Bay Area Ridge Trail and other nature paths. The land was the subject of a 20-year battle between developers and preservationists until August, when the land trust agreed to pay private owners $1.8 million for the area that includes stands of oak trees, grasslands, marsh frogs, snakes and other native wildlife. New land-use law's message: build near transit...James Templehttp://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/11/28/MNON1491JM.DTL&type=printableMany California planning and environmental groups are heralding the passage of legislation designed to address global warming by curbing suburban sprawl as a watershed moment, perhaps the state's most important land-use law in more than 30 years."It's a sea change in the way we're planning and funding growth and development," said Stephanie Reyes, senior policy advocate with San Francisco's Greenbelt Alliance. "The winds are shifting, and this is the time to get on board."But she and other advocates acknowledge that the importance of SB375, signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in late September, lies as much in the tone it sets as in what it will accomplish, which remains unclear. Essentially the law, which will take years to implement, uses incentives and requirements to encourage local governments and builders to concentrate growth in urban areas or close to public transportation hubs in an effort to reduce Californians' use of cars and lower their greenhouse gas emissions.The ultimate impact will depend on how the legislation is put into effect, and whether its carrots and sticks will outweigh the cries from people who don't want big new buildings on their block.Whatever the law's accomplishments, proponents hope it sends a clear message that will be reflected in future legislation and policies on the state and local levels: Dense, transit-oriented development is a critical goal for the collective good."A small step can be an important step if it's the step that turns the corner," said Tom Adams, board president of the California League of Conservation Voters, the principal drafter of the legislation. "I think it will change forever the way we look at land use in California."What critics sayCritics, however, argue the law wrests away too much local control over land use decisions, potentially eliminates funding for transportation projects already promised to voters, and creates new grounds for lawsuits."Our greatest concerns were that the bill dramatically increased the exposure to litigation for future regional transportation plans, particularly for highway projects or any other projects that might be deemed to not support infill development," said Bob McCleary, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. Other opponents include the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Association of Realtors. Many developers supported the bill in its final form, after industry groups lobbied for changes. Key among them was a streamlining of the environmental approval process for projects that clearly meet the goals set forth in the law.Paul Campos, attorney for the California Major Builders Council who worked on the bill, described the attitude toward the law among developers as cautious optimism. "Our industry very much supports the goal of building more high-density projects in blighted areas, doing redevelopment and transit-oriented developments," he said. "There is a demand for this type of development, and it's not as if all the home builders in the U.S. and California are stupid."On the other hand, he said, there is a firm industry conviction that not all of the projected growth in California can be accommodated in multifamily urban properties, nor do all consumers want to live in such homes. There are clear downsides for those builders pursuing projects that don't reflect the model envisioned in the law. Developments that significantly increase auto traffic will be more thoroughly scrutinized and may require more privately financed transportation infrastructure. For proponents, that is precisely the point: discouraging traffic to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a meaningful way.Transportation accounts for one-third of all CO{-2} emissions in the state, so tackling it is critical to achieving the goals of AB32, the landmark global warming legislation approved in 2006 that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California by 30 percent by 2020. In the global warming context, land use is thought of as one leg of the three-legged transportation stool, along with vehicle fuel economy and low-carbon fuels like biodiesel. The metaphor may be apt, as studies have concluded the projected increases in driving, based on today's sprawling development patterns, would overwhelm any emission reductions achieved through better gas mileage and cleaner fuels in the next few decades. Without improved land use, the stool topples, the argument goes.For decades, Northern California's growth hasn't followed this model, with most building occurring outside the nine-county Bay Area, according to a report by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. Suburban sprawlBetween 1972 and 2004, only the outlying counties of Solano and Sonoma saw the number of people per square mile more than double, while that happened in every county in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, the group said.SPUR and other planning groups attribute this to the reluctance of communities in the inner areas to add new housing on the scale of their suburban neighbors, which tends to drive up costs of existing stock. Those who want to own a home look farther and farther out, a pattern that necessitates ever longer drives to work, and car trips for most shopping and entertainment outings. "The simple truth is we can not get there without land use as a fundamental framework," said Peter Calthorpe, founder of San Francisco planning group Congress for New Urbanism, at a recent industry conference on the impacts of the law. "What's exciting about California is we're about to lead the way again, instead of following and dragging our feet."How SB375 worksAccording to analysis by California real estate lawyers with law firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, under the new legislation:-- The Air Resources Board must create committees, which include local transportation agencies, planning organizations and the public, that recommend regional greenhouse gas reduction targets. The board must review the report and provide regional guidelines by June 30, 2010.-- Metropolitan planning organizations, which include the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the Bay Area, must update their regional transportation plans with strategies that ensure future developments and the roads and public transportation that support them cut emissions by the goals set by the Air Resources Board.-- Every eight years, local governments must submit housing elements - essentially plans identifying areas that can accommodate predicted residential growth in a given region - that are consistent with the strategies set forth by the planning organizations. Within the next three years, they must rezone land to reflect these plans.This zoning requirement is one of the strongest incentives to build dense, transit-oriented development within the law, said Ted Droettboom, regional planning program director for the Joint Policy Committee, a consortium of local planning organizations that includes the MTC. Once new zoning is in place, it becomes more difficult for local governments or residents to block builders pursuing these sorts of projects.OTHER CARROTS AND STICKS-- Communities that approve projects inconsistent with these plans will have a more difficult time securing government financing for related transportation improvements - such as new roads and freeway interchanges.-- The environmental approval process will be streamlined for certain projects that achieve the goals of the law.-- Developments that may boost auto traffic will be more thoroughly scrutinized, and may require more privately financed transportation infrastructure.-- Projects with at least 49 percent of the units designated as affordable that meet local zoning requirements may qualify for a so called anti-NIMBY defense that allows the developments to move forward even if communities reject them.What new law doesSB375 uses incentives and requirements to encourage local governments and developers to concentrate growth in urban areas or close to public transportation hubs in an effort to reduce Californians' use of cars and lower their greenhouse gas emissions. But it is a complicated law, and its ultimate impact remains unclear.New mortgage crisis: commercial properties...Matt Apuzzo, Associated Presshttp://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/11/28/BUQC14CSJV.DTL&type=printableThe full scope of the housing meltdown isn't clear, and already there are ominous signs of a new crisis - one that could turn out the lights on malls, hotels and storefronts nationwide.Even as the holiday shopping season begins, the same events poisoning the housing market are now at work on commercial properties, and the bad news is trickling in. Malls from Michigan to Georgia are entering foreclosure.Hotels in Tucson and in Hilton Head, S.C., also are about to default on their mortgages.That pace is expected to quicken. The number of late payments and defaults will double, if not triple, by the end of next year, according to analysts from Fitch Ratings Ltd., which evaluates companies' credit."We're probably in the first inning of the commercial mortgage problem," said Scott Tross, a real estate lawyer with Herrick Feinstein in New Jersey.That's bad news for more than just property owners. When businesses go dark, employees lose jobs. Towns lose tax revenue. School budgets and social services feel the pinch.Companies have survived plenty of downturns, but economists see this one playing out like never before. In the past, when businesses hit rough patches, owners negotiated with banks or refinanced their loans.But many banks no longer hold the loans they made. Over the past decade, banks have increasingly bundled mortgages and sold them to investors. Pension funds, insurance companies and hedge funds bought the seemingly safe securities and are now bracing for losses that could ripple through the financial system."It's a toxic drug, and nobody knows how bad it's going to be," said Paul Miller, an analyst with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey who was among the first to sound alarm bells in the residential market.Unlike home mortgages, businesses don't pay their loans over 30 years. Commercial mortgages are usually written for 5, 7 or 10 years with big payments due at the end. About $20 billion will be due next year, covering everything from office and condo complexes to hotels and malls.The retail outlook is particularly bad. Circuit City and Linens 'n Things have sought bankruptcy protection. Home Depot, Sears, Ann Taylor and Foot Locker are closing some of their stores.Those retailers typically were paying rent that was expected to cover mortgage payments. When those $20 billion in mortgages come due next year - 2010 and 2011 totals are projected to be even higher - many property owners won't have the money.Some will survive, but those property owners whose loans required little money up front will have less incentive to weather the storm.Refinancing formerly was an option, but many properties are worth less than when they were purchased. And because investors no longer want to buy commercial mortgages, banks are reluctant to write new loans to refinance those facing foreclosure.California, New York, Texas and Florida - states with a high concentration of mortgages in the securities market, according to Fitch - are particularly vulnerable. Texas and Florida are already seeing increased delinquencies and defaults, as are Michigan, Tennessee and Georgia.The worst-case scenario goes something like this: With banks unwilling to refinance, a shopping center goes into foreclosure. Nobody can buy the mall because banks won't write mortgages as long as investors won't purchase them."Credit markets have seized up," corporate securities lawyer Michael Gambro said. "People are not willing to take risks. They're not buying anything."That drives down investments already on the books. Insurance companies are seeing their stock prices fall on fears they are too invested in commercial mortgages."The system has never been tested for a deep recession," said Ken Rosen, a real estate hedge fund manager and UC Berkeley professor of real estate economics.The Securities and Exchange Commission is considering an option that might ease the crisis, one that would change accounting rules so banks don't have to declare huge losses whenever the market declines.But the only surefire remedy is for the economy to stabilize, for businesses to start expanding and for investors to trust the market again. Until then, Tross said, "There's going to be a lot of pain."Bush's destructive path on environment...Editorialhttp://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/11/28/ED0S14BE84.DTL&type=printableSo many environmental regulations to gut, so little time.In a surprising show of industriousness, the Bush administration has unleashed a last-minute attack on national environmental regulations. "Midnight regulations," as these activities are called, are nothing new - the first president to ram through unfinished business before leaving office was Jimmy Carter in 1980. Every president since Carter has done the same thing, and the amount of paper used is staggering: Bill Clinton, for example, published more than 26,000 pages' worth of rules in the Federal Register during his midnight moment. Every outgoing president does it, and every incoming president complains about it bitterly - the rules, once in place, have proved difficult to change.We urge President-elect Barack Obama to do his best. Bush's last-minute rules are particularly egregious because they are focused, like a laser, on destroying the nation's environmental standards.How, really, can the Bush administration claim with a straight face that the country as a whole will benefit from a new rule allowing power plants to operate near national parks? Or one that will open public land to commercial oil producers, who will have to use an extraction method that's notoriously energy and pollution-intensive? Who really benefits from provisions that allow power plants to operate at longer hours and emit more pollution? Why is now the right time to remove Northern Rockies wolves from the Endangered Species list?Very few Americans, presumably, will reap rewards from any of these policies, which may be why the administration is restricting public comment on many of these regulations to 30 days and claiming that it can read the hundreds of thousands of public comments that it receives on each ruling in laughable time periods, like four days in the case of the endangered-species rule revisions. There's a process being followed here for sure, but it's a mockery. The cynicism is breathtaking enough, but the damage to our nation's oceans, rivers, skies, and open spaces will be devastating. And there are still weeks to go: Still weeks in which the administration can cook up new regulations to serve the interests of a few industries at the expense of the American people. So when those weeks are over, Obama and Congress owe it to the American people to reverse as many of these destructive rules as possible. Los Angeles TimesWest Coast ports face struggle to maintain relevanceThe global financial slowdown has already slashed traffic, and a major Panama Canal expansion will bring new competition...Ronald D. Whitehttp://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-fi-ports28-2008nov28,0,120890,print.storyThe slowdown in international trade has left the docks at the nation's biggest seaport complex quieter than they've been in years.Some workers, particularly non-union "casuals," at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports wait for shifts that never come. Automobiles and other merchandise pile up as consumers dig in for a long economic winter.But the problems at the twin ports, along with smaller West Coast harbors, extend beyond the nation's economic woes, maritime experts say, and changes on the horizon could leave the seaports struggling to keep customers.That's the assessment of a recent report by London-based Drewry Supply Chain Consultants, a maritime industry research firm that has about 3,000 clients in more than 100 countries. West Coast ports will see increased competition from the Panama Canal, which is undergoing a bigger-than-expected expansion due to be completed in 2014, Drewry said. In addition, rising Chinese labor costs will push some manufacturing back to Mexico and South America.Even if global trade returns to its formerly robust pace, Drewry said, "any new trade will probably pass the West Coast by. Volumes are unlikely to decline, but the days of strong growth on the Pacific Coast are behind us."The implications are potentially enormous.The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are directly or indirectly responsible for 886,000 jobs in California, according to a 2007 study by the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority. The $256 billion in U.S. trade that moved through the ports that year, including $62.5 billion in California cargo, was also responsible for $6.7 billion in state and local tax revenues, the study said.But times change, Drewry and other maritime experts say, and future economic conditions will shine a more favorable light on the all-water routes to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports by way of the Panama and Suez canals.Some of that trend can be seen already.A.P. Moller Maersk, the world's biggest shipping line, this year reduced its business from Asia to the U.S. West Coast in favor of stronger Asia-to-Europe trade. This month, the Denmark-based giant announced more changes.Maersk said it would join with the world's third-largest shipping line, France's CMA CGM, and cut back its Asia-to-U.S. business by an additional 8% with new routes through the Panama and Suez canals.The new business partnerships come at a time when the maritime industry is reeling from the global economic slowdown and credit crisis, delaying delivery of new vessels and killing deals considered too much of a revenue risk. Those pressures, Drewry says, will result in changes that will be difficult to unravel even as global trade eventually recovers.Officials at West Coast ports say that they are doing what they can to remain competitive. But Drewry and other authorities say the ports suffer from a number of problems, including a lack of land for expansion and rail capacity that is significantly lower than in the past, despite billions of dollars in investments.The two largest ports -- Los Angeles and Long Beach -- also face steep and costly environmental hurdles to expansion projects that had slowed to a crawl until this year. Some of those plans face serious legal challenges from trucking and trade groups.In the meantime, the Panama Canal expansion project has come a long way from something that generated amused smirks from the maritime community when it was first announced in 2006.As a sign of the new esteem with which the project is now regarded, Panama Canal Authority Administrator and Chief Executive Alberto Aleman Zubieta was honored Monday with an excellence award at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Lima, Peru, for "successfully moving the canal from a profit-neutral utility to a business-oriented enterprise."Now, Drewry says, West Coast market share is about to take a serious hit, "possibly forever," from a "rejuvenated, aggressive and soon-to-be widened Panama Canal" that will have locks capable of handling cargo ships carrying as many as 13,000 containers -- much larger than the 8,000-container ships it was originally expected to accommodate.Drewry isn't the only one who thinks so."With the ability to handle most of the world's largest ships, the Panama Canal will begin to enjoy better economies of scale than its primary competitor, which is the transpacific intermodal route from Asia to the West Coast and to the rest of the U.S. by rail," said Asaf Ashar, head of the Washington office of the University of New Orleans' National Ports and Waterways Institute."It's cheaper to move cargo by ship than it is to transfer it to rail and go overland," Ashar said. "The logical conclusion is that market share will be lost."Meanwhile, East Coast ports are frantically working to be prepared once the Panama Canal expansion is complete.The American Assn. of Port Authorities, which represents most of the Western Hemisphere's major harbors, is devoting the current issue of its Seaport Magazine and an upcoming seminar in January to the shifting international trade routes and the Panama Canal expansion."It's become a very big deal," said Aaron Ellis, a spokesman for the trade group.Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Geraldine Knatz said the port's willingness to address environmental concerns ended a logjam of expansion projects this year.Saying that the port "should be investing $1 million a day in its capital spending plan" to increase efficiency and reduce pollution, Knatz said the facility was on pace to award $383 million in construction contracts this year.Knatz said port officials were fully aware of the threat posed by projects such as the Panama Canal expansion, but she said the local ports had no choice in the way they must proceed."We're aware that some cargo has been diverted because of what we are trying to accomplish here," Knatz said, "but there is no way we would have been able to move forward at all with these construction projects if not for the steps we are taking to reduce pollution."Washington PostEPA, Interior Dept. Chiefs Will Be Busy Erasing Bush's Mark...Juliet Eilperin. Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/27/AR2008112702184_pf.htmlFew federal agencies are expected to undergo as radical a transformation under President-elect Barack Obama as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, which have been at the epicenter of many of the Bush administration's most intense scientific and environmental controversies.The agencies have different mandates -- the EPA holds sway over air and water pollution, while Interior administers the nation's vast federal land holdings as well as the Endangered Species Act -- but both deal with some of the country's most pressing environmental concerns, such as climate change. And over the past eight years, many career employees and rank-and-file scientists have clashed with Bush appointees over a number of those of issues, including whether the federal government should allow California to regulate tailpipe emissions from automobiles and how best to prevent imperiled species from disappearing altogether.In June 2007, Obama told reporters in Reno, Nev., that he would not hesitate to reverse many of the environmental policies Bush has enacted by executive order."I think the slow chipping away against clean air and clean water has been deeply disturbing," Obama added. "Much of it hasn't gone through Congress. It was done by fiat. That is something that can be changed by an administration, in part by reinvigorating the EPA, which has been demoralized."Global warming policies are expected to mark one of the sharpest breaks between the Obama and the Bush administrations.EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson overruled his career advisers in deciding to deny California authority to control tailpipe emissions and rejecting their conclusion that global warming poses a threat to public welfare, and Obama is likely to reverse both of those policies shortly after taking office. This month, the president-elect told delegates to the Governors' Global Climate Summit that he would push for a federal cap-and-trade system designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and then to cut them an additional 80 percent by 2050, targets Bush has never embraced."Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response," Obama said in a videotaped message. "The stakes are too high, the consequences too serious."Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, said that together, the two agencies will help shape the government's response to climate change.Clark, who headed the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton, is not a formal Obama adviser, but many of her former Clinton colleagues are helping the transition team, including David Hayes, a partner at Latham & Watkins; John Leshy, a professor at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law; and Robert Sussman, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress."EPA will play the lead role in crafting a regulatory response," Clark said. "Interior has a huge role to play in adaptation" -- the effort to cope with climate changes that are already happening, such as drought and more frequent wildfires.EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said Wednesday that the agency is focused on finalizing policies on coal-fired power plants and other matters, but he would not speculate on the task the next administration faces: "We'll let the next team decide what their priorities will be when they get here."With escalating responsibilities, both agencies will need more resources after years when their budgets shrank, relatively speaking. The EPA received $7.5 billion from Congress in 2008, down from $7.8 billion in 2001. Interior has fared slightly better, getting $11.1 billion compared with $10.4 billion in 2001, but that represents more than a 10 percent cut in inflation-adjusted dollars.Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who as chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has feuded with both Johnson and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne over global warming and other issues, said in an interview that she has high expectations of the people who will take their places."I'm expecting President-elect Obama to select people who really care about the issues they're in charge of, someone who believes in their mission and not someone who's going to undermine their mission," she said. "That's a sea change."There is a long list of Democrats vying to take the helm of both agencies. The two leading contenders for EPA administrator are Mary Nichols, a favorite of Boxer's who chairs the California Air Resources Board, and Lisa Jackson, who is in the midst of switching from heading New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection to serving as chief of staff to New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine. Other possible nominees include Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty; Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles; former Sierra Club president and environmental activist Lisa Renstrom; and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a Pace University law professor and chairman of the Waterkeeper Alliance, another advocacy group.The list for Interior is almost as long. Two House Democrats, Raul M. Grijalva (Ariz.) and Mike Thompson (Calif.) are contenders, but Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber, National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe, as well as three former Interior officials -- David Hayes, John Leshy and Clark at Defenders of Wildlife -- have all been mentioned.Regardless of who takes over at the agencies, the new leaders will face impatient scrutiny from green groups eager to change the government's trajectory on the environment. Frank O'Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, ticked off 10 initiatives he expects the new EPA administrator to undertake, including changing rules on emissions from coal-fired power plants and monitoring airborne lead pollution more closely."The Bush administration has cut so many special deals for industry that it could be a Herculean effort reversing them all," O'Donnell said. "The new team is going to have to muck out the regulatory stables."