What Would Ideal CEQA Reform Look Like?

Posted on 13 February 2013

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By Robert Cruickshank

There's been a lot of discussion in recent weeks about various proposals to reform the California Environmental Quality Act. But the most interesting proposals are those that have been around the longest.

I first delved into CEQA back in 2009 when covering an article that argued CEQA could be the biggest obstacle to California high speed rail. At the time, I touted a 2006 study by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association - SPUR - titled Fixing the California Environmental Quality Act. SPUR's approach was to follow the successful model of Oregon, where for over 40 years sprawl has been effectively if not totally limited in favor of light rail and infill development. SPUR's goal was to promote greater urban density through smart, holistic planning processes. CEQA is primarily designed as a tool to block bad projects but does nothing to encourage good projects, which is what we need.

As CEQA reform has emerged as a major issue in the state legislature in 2013, observers are beginning to take another look at SPUR's proposals. Like many sustainability and transit advocates, Metcalf cites the appalling use of CEQA to block San Francisco's bicycle plan as a good example of the need for change:

"We were not allowed to add a bike rack in San Francisco for three years while we studied the negative environmental impacts of a bike lane," says Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), a group that promotes long-term planning and sustainable infill development. "The goal was to take away space for cars and convert it to transit and bikes. That's an environmental positive, but not according to CEQA."

If CEQA reform accomplishes only one thing this year, I hope it's to ensure that nobody can ever do that again. But for Metcalf, it's infill development, not bike lanes, that are the primary reason why CEQA needs some kind of change:

"In general, CEQA makes it take many years to get approval to do infill development," says Metcalf. "That means somebody who's trying to do a project is paying money month after month for a piece of land while they go through environmental review. It's not just a couple of weeks. It's years. Delays of this magnitude are driving up the costs so much infill has become infeasible except in the highest-priced locations."

To drive more infill across urban areas, Metcalf hopes lawmakers will consider dramatically changing the way CEQA works inside city limits.

"If it were up to me, I'd say inside municipal boundaries, we use planning instead of CEQA to make land-use decisions," he says, especially now that California cities are working to make their plans consistent with SB 375′s sustainable community strategies--regional blueprints that integrate transportation, housing, and land-use to achieve state environmental goals.

As for environmentalists' concerns that streamlining the development process this way gives local leaders so much flexibility they could harm the environment?

"I think the environmental movement needs to do a 180 on this and decide that the core strategy we're going to use to protect the environment in California is to make way more infill development happen, so the next 20 years look radically different than the last 20 years," says Metcalf.

One argument I have heard is that SB 375, which goes some of the way toward providing the reforms Metcalf suggests, ought to be given more time to play out in practice before further CEQA reforms are proposed. That makes sense.

But I like where Metcalf is going here. He is suggesting that land use planning and environmental reviews should be structured so that projects that are sustainable and environmentally friendly, from rail to infill development are promoted and favored while also containing rules and guidelines to stop projects that promote sprawl, pollution, or carbon emissions.

That requires a shift in approach. Currently, CEQA is structured to require mitigation for environmental impacts. But as Metcalf argues, "The idea that you have to mitigate something that's good for the environment is crazy." In fact, many projects that are not good for the environment do get approved under CEQA because they find some way to mitigate - but not entirely eliminate - their impact. A lot of sprawl and freeway construction has been approved under the CEQA process through mitigation, which should raise some questions about whether this is the best way to deal with bad projects.

However, we should be clear that this kind of reform is so far not in the discussion right now among the business groups driving the CEQA reform process. I've heard offline some grumbling and frustration from sustainability and transit advocates who would like to play a greater role in shaping a CEQA reform proposal, but who aren't invited to the table. And the published reports that we have seen about CEQA reform indicate that the changes being proposed are within and potentially weakening the existing framework, rather than moving toward a planning-based model.

All signs indicate that in 2013, at least, CEQA reform will shape up as a battle between large businesses who want reforms, some of which may be good and some of which may be bad, and environmental advocates who want to reject those proposals either because they like the status quo or because they see the emerging reform proposals as being too damaging and loophole-friendly.

If the specific proposals that do emerge wind up weakening CEQA protections for legitimate environmental concerns, from fracking to sprawl to carbon emissions, then my suggestion would be to oppose them. It may be necessary to kill a bad proposal in order to help a good one like that described by Metcalf and SPUR becomes a real possibility. We will see what happens as the year and the reform process unfolds.

Robert Cruickshank writes on California politics at Calitics and California High Speed Rail Blog. This article was originally published at California High Speed Rail Blog.

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