.Weak CEQA Reform Bill Is Not That Bad

The legislation would prohibit anti-growth activists from blocking smart-growth projects because of aesthetics or lack of parking.

Earlier this year, I argued that SB 731 — a bill pushed by state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg that sought to reform the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) — represented a good first step toward spurring more urban growth, but that it didn’t go far enough. Ultimately, Steinberg decided in the last week of this year’s legislative session to incorporate aspects of his CEQA reform bill into another piece of legislation — SB 743 — which would pave the way for a proposed new basketball arena for the Sacramento Kings. SB 743 passed both houses of the legislature and is awaiting Governor Jerry Brown’s signature. And although the bill is still weak, the governor would be smart to sign it.

As the Express has repeatedly noted, anti-growth activists have used CEQA over the years to block smart-growth projects — defined as housing, mixed-use, or employment-center developments near major transit hubs. Most environmentalists agree that spurring growth in cities is one of the most effective ways of fighting climate change because it helps curb suburban sprawl, limits long car commutes, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. And as any renter or prospective homebuyer in the urban Bay Area can tell you, we have an extreme housing shortage and desperately need more condos, apartments, and affordable housing.

SB 743 would help alleviate the housing shortage and help the environment at the same time in three ways: It would exempt smart-growth projects from CEQA lawsuits involving aesthetics or parking. And it would make it tougher for NIMBYs to sue to block smart-growth projects for allegedly creating too much traffic in their neighborhoods.

The whole point of smart growth is to encourage people to live near their workplaces or mass transit so they won’t need cars. It’s all about creating livable, walkable neighborhoods that are far more energy-efficient. However, anti-growth activists have used CEQA to severely undermine this goal. They have blocked dense, smart-growth housing projects on the grounds that the developments don’t provide enough parking — even though the creation of more parking only serves as an incentive for car ownership. SB 743, however, would prohibit NIMBYs from using CEQA in this way — and thus promises to spur smart urban planning that discourages onsite parking and automobile use, while encouraging people to walk, bike, or take mass transit.

Ironically, some anti-growth activists also have attempted to block smart-growth projects by arguing that while a particular development wouldn’t provide enough parking, it also would create too much traffic. In other words, they’ve essentially argued for more traffic (by advocating for more parking) and less traffic at the same time. In reality, they’re just using any legal means at their disposal to block projects they don’t want. But it’s long past time for such perversions of the law to stop. Moreover, smart-growth projects, by definition, create less traffic, and thus less pollution, because urban residents don’t need to use their cars as much. Although SB 743 doesn’t exempt smart-growth projects from lawsuits over traffic, the legislation calls for state regulators to come up with a new way of analyzing traffic for transit-oriented developments.

Another way that anti-growth activists have blocked smart-growth projects over the years is by suing over aesthetics — that is, the way a project looks, its impact on residents’ views, or whether it will create too many shadows in a particular neighborhood. SB 743 would ban such suits and would no longer require CEQA review of a smart-growth project’s aesthetic impacts — although it would keep in place local zoning laws that deal with aesthetics.

I argued earlier this year that the legislature should have exempted all smart-growth projects from CEQA lawsuits. And I still think that would have been the best solution for spurring as much smart growth as possible. It makes no sense that anti-growth activists can still use the state’s primary environmental law to block projects that are good for the environment. However, proposals by some business and labor groups earlier this year to completely overhaul CEQA appeared to go too far because they threatened to create more suburban sprawl — not less — and weaken environmental protections for threatened and endangered species. So while Steinberg was smart not to adopt those proposals, his bill still failed to go far enough to help create more transit-oriented development. Nonetheless, SB 743 represents a step in the right direction.

As of Tuesday morning of this week, Governor Brown had not said whether he intends to sign SB 743. And it’s unclear where he stands on the Sacramento basketball arena project. But in the past, he has described CEQA reform as “the Lord’s work.”

Three-Dot Roundup

Late last week, the governor signed SB 4, a watered-down fracking bill, despite widespread opposition from the environmental community after oil and gas lobbyists successfully pushed for last-minute amendments to the legislation. The bill requires the state to approve all fracking permit requests during the next two years — as long as oil and gas companies disclose to state regulators what chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing. … Mayor Jean Quan announced last week that federal officials had agreed to give Oakland $4.5 million to pay for ten new police officers over the next three years. The announcement came as the department had shrunk to just 611 cops. … And BART has been secretly training its managers to drive trains should there be a strike next month, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The transit agency has been training managers at its warehouse on Mare Island in Vallejo, and plans to run limited service if train operators and station agents go on strike on October 10.


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