The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA reform), has long been the bete noire of urbanists. Signed into law in 1970 by Gov. Ronald Reagan, it has not been updated to address the large environmental challenges our cities face, though this was not for lack of trying over the decades! There was a small victory last year, however, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB743 (Steinberg), a bill that introduced the first changes to CEQA in ages. Its most notable feature is that it eliminated the “need to evaluate aesthetic and parking impacts of a project, in some circumstances.” What does this mean and how will SB743 be interpreted?
It appears that there are hints of movement in Sacramento on CEQA recently. For instance, the California Office of Planning and Research (OPR) has issued some proposed amendments to SB743 related to the transportation impacts of projects. This blog post is to alert our readers to three articles that might shed light on some of the forces currently affecting CEQA, both at the state level and locally, in the case of Treasure Island.
a) We recently saw a blistering response to the OPR amendments from Jennifer Hernandez, an attorney with Holland and Knight, and one of the state’s top CEQA experts. In her analysis, she says that OPR’s proposal “suggests a mandatory new vehicle miles traveled (VMT) transportation study and several recommended mitigation measures that conflict with the SB 743 goal of encouraging infill.” Her article suggests that, while OPR is eliminating the need to use the old car-centric “level of service” standards to analyze a project’s environmental impacts – an undeniable benefit – it is substituting an equally onerous requirement, that a project’s VMT be studied instead. She believes this is an opportunity missed to make urban infill easier to do in cities.
b) A second article that caught our attention is one that appeared in the Fox & Hounds, a blog devoted to “keeping tabs on California’s business and politics.” Its author, Loren Kaye, states that, “The best prospect for reform of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is no longer with the Legislature or the Governor, but at the California Supreme Court.” His thesis is that, given the failure of the legislature to provide meaningful reform to the CEQA dinosaur, we might expect the California Supreme Court to take up the challenge. He writes, “In some cases the Supreme Court will resolve conflicts among lower courts; in others it has the opportunity to untangle ambiguous findings in controlling cases. Depending on the clarity of the opinions, these cases could bring uncharacteristic certainty and predictability to large chunks of CEQA jurisprudence.” May this happen soon and bring relief to urbanists!
c) Finally, we saw a recent piece by our friend and SFHAC member, Dan Frattin, an attorney with Reuben, Junius & Rose. He discusses how the enormous Treasure Island development’s recent CEQA victory at the California Court of Appeals might be short lived. The project’s EIR has long been opposed by the ironically named “Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island” (CSTI), a joint venture between former Supervisor Aaron Peskin and Arc Ecology, a local nonprofit. Having lost in both lower courts, CSTI has apparently decided to appeal to the California Supreme Court, thereby delaying this excellent, SFHAC-endorsed project still longer. In the arcane world of CEQA, CSTI insists that the Treasure Island EIR, which was adopted by the SF Board of Supervisors in June 2011, is defective and should be rejected. Frattin explains that in CSTI’s view, “The City should have used a “Program EIR” rather than a “Project EIR” because not all of the hypothetical details of development on the island have been resolved.” From CSTI’s point of view, this is a simple, low-cost way to delay a project until, if they are lucky, a turn in the economy accomplishes what endless appeals could not – kill the project!
We have attached links to three useful articles on the topic. Enjoy!
A) OPR proposes CEQA amendments, Holland Knight sounds the alarm
B) Is CEQA review heading to the CA Supreme Court?
C) Treasure Island might be heading to the Supreme Court