CEQA Roundup: Questions linger about speeding up CEQA process

150 150 Justin Ewers

Bike lane in San Francisco. One of the San Francisco supervisors is attempting to limit the timeframe when CEQA appeals can be filed. (Photo Credit: John Guenther)

After last week’s high-profile attempts to raise the stakes on the CEQA debate—first by reformers trying to rally local officials around their efforts, then by environmentalists and labor groups opposed to making changes to the law—lawmakers were mostly quiet on the subject this week. But the last few days haven’t been without their intriguing CEQA developments.

The liveliest CEQA conversation may be taking place in San Francisco, where the state’s policy tug-of-war is being acted out in miniature. Frustrated by the delays and high costs caused by some CEQA suits, Scott Wiener, a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors, has spent the last few months putting together a bill that would streamline CEQA by preventing last-minute appeals that slow down many small projects.

Wiener’s proposal aims to eliminate some of the confusion caused by the law: San Francisco is one of a few cities where there is no deadline for appealing projects like park upgrades that don’t require a full environmental impact report. Which means, as Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius puts it: “One angry, kooky or determined resident can hold up a housing remodel or park improvement for months.” (Like, for example, in this case.)

With the support of groups ranging from the city’s Bicycle Coalition and San Francisco Housing Action Coalition to the Bay Area Council, Wiener aims to clear this up by requiring CEQA appeals to be made within 30 days of a project’s approval—which he says would put an end to the delays and uncertainty.

A CEQA twist

“We have a system that is designed for maximum confusion and maximum frustration,” Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The amendments we’re talking about here would help clear up a little bit of the confusion and a little bit of the frustration for a small set of projects.”

When the city’s Planning Commission approved his bill last week, though, Wiener discovered another supervisor, Jane Kim, has developed her own CEQA bill—one supported by environmental groups and slow-growth neighborhood advocates who want to keep CEQA the way it is.

“Scott Wiener’s legislation puts forward a time frame that will hamper our ability to effectively file an appeal,” said Michelle Myers, director of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay chapter.

Sound familiar? It should. Coming only a few weeks after state lawmakers introduced more than two dozen bills claiming to “reform” CEQA, both sides in this San Francisco showdown also purport to have the law’s best interests at heart. As Nevius puts it:

Wiener said his bill clarifies the appeals process, creates clear public deadlines and improves neighborhood notification. “The alternative legislation,” Wiener said, “does the exact opposite. It makes it worse, more expensive and time-consuming. It is Opposite Day.” Kim admits her bill will “trigger more hearings and offer the advocacy groups more protection,” but insists she’s as eager as anyone to reform CEQA.

A statewide solution?

In a perfect world, cities like San Francisco could turn to state lawmakers to resolve some of the uncertainty around the law. This week, Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters takes a look at the likelihood of that happening this session, examining the central question hovering over the CEQA debate in Sacramento: What kind of reform is really on the table?

Walters focuses in particular on Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for changes to CEQA that would create “consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays.” This is a key phrase, Walters points out, for would-be reformers, who are pushing for much more than what Wiener has proposed in San Francisco. A statewide coalition of business groups and local governments would like to exempt from CEQA suits projects that already comply with existing environmental laws—an idea known as the “standards-based” approach.

After CEQA reform’s foremost champion, Sen. Michael Rubio, resigned his post in February, Sen. Darrell Steinberg introduced a scaled-back reform bill that was surprisingly clear on the subject. It explicitly steers clear of the reformers’ approach, saying “it is not the intent of the Legislature to replace full CEQA analysis with state or local standards.”

Even so, Walters says another proposal in Steinberg’s bill may offer reformers some hope. To speed up the CEQA process for projects in urban areas, Steinberg suggests setting “thresholds of significance” for issues like noise, aesthetics, parking, and traffic—some of the most widely used (and abused) parts of the law. “The idea,” as attorney Barbara Schussman put it in an excellent summary of the bill, “is that if a project can meet such a threshold, no additional environmental review would be required for those impacts.”

Without such a review, there would be fewer grounds for a lawsuit—at least not one based on traffic impacts or aesthetics. Voilà, the same result as the “standards” approach. Says Walters:

Whatever word one uses, the limitation, or even elimination, of post-approval litigation is clearly the single most important issue in the looming political battle over CEQA. Litigation, or the threat of litigation, is the most potent weapon in the procedural arsenal of environmental groups and others—labor unions, particularly—that oppose particular projects.

Will ‘thresholds’ be the new ‘standards?’

The implications of Steinberg’s proposal may partly explain last week’s high-profile efforts by labor leaders and environmentalists to raise the stakes in the CEQA debate. Labor groups certainly seem to be pushing back hard against anything that would make it more difficult to file a CEQA lawsuit, though they haven’t gone into detail about the specifics of Steinberg’s bill.

Environmental groups seem more committed to staying at the table to shape the legislation—but they are clearly worried about how thresholds would be set. “While SB 731 thankfully abandons the standards-based approach, it still raises concerns for many in the environmental community,” the Planning and Conservation League told members in a recent newsletter. “[Setting] thresholds of significance for certain categories of environmental impacts…could approach a type of standards-based approach.”

Walters, for his part, isn’t sure there is a clear path to victory even for Steinberg’s scaled-back proposals: “With labor unions and environmental groups, two major Democratic constituencies, opposed to major CEQA changes, the outcome is uncertain,” he says, “Especially since the issue embraces two of the Capitol’s hoariest conflicts—between business and environmentalists over regulation—and between business and trial attorneys over limiting litigation.”

Until a solution can be found in Sacramento, cities like San Francisco, at least for the time being, appear to be on their own.


Justin Ewers

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