CEQA reform battle sparks welcome changes even before final compromise

The Planning Department recently made it easier for activists to track development projects.

UPDATED When Sup. Scott Wiener last year introduced legislation that would limit people’s ability to appeal development projects by reforming the California Environmental Quality Act’s local procedures, progressives and neighborhood activists rose up in strong opposition. But now, with that measure and a competing alternative up for approval by the Board of Supervisors tomorrow (Tues/16), there is a compromise in the offing that all sides may see as an improvement on the status quo, particularly given administrative changes that the Planning Department has made along the way.

“We made a series of amendments in April that addressed almost all the concerns raised by the neighborhood activists,” said Judson True, the top aide to Board President David Chiu, who has once again taken the lead role in crafting a compromise on controversial legislation

Final details of the deal are still being worked out, but sources on both sides say there is an agreement on the broad outlines of a true compromise. It would accomplish Wiener’s main goal of limiting the current ability of project opponents to file a CEQA appeal at any time while also improving the public notification process.

“It’s still pretty fluid now, but we’re working to get to a consensus measure, we hope,” True told us.

Wiener has always emphasized that his legislation applies only to relatively small projects, those that are “categorically exempt” under CEQA from having to do detailed environmental studies. And he said the compromises now being developed appear to meet his initial goals.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that it will be approved,” Wiener told us, adding that, “If this turns out to be a kumbaya moment, that will show the legislative process works.” [UPDATE: The compromise legislation was unanimously approved by the board.]

One byproduct of that process was recent changes on the Planning Department’s website that make it much easier for activists to track the status of projects -- with a new map showing projects that have been granted CEQA exemptions that would move forward unless challenged -- which activists requested during the Land Use Committee hearings on this legislation.

“We heard from members of the public that our existing posting process was cumbersome. It was also time-consuming for staff. We decided to revamp the system, using technology we’ve developed in recent years. By converting the checklist into electronic format and having it searchable by location, it’ll be easier for the public to search for a particular project and more efficient for staff to process,” Planning Department spokesperson Joanna Linsangan told us.

True said the hearings on the legislation have helped to illuminate problems that could be addressed administratively: “There’s been a real push from supervisors and the Planning Department itself to improve noticing.”

Eric Brooks, who has been working with the 42 groups that coalesced to oppose Wiener’s legislation -- including environmentalists, neighborhood groups, labor, and historic preservationists -- said ensuring proper noticing was half the battle. He gave credit to Sup. Jane Kim for resisting the Wiener legislation and working with activists to put forward a competing measure, sowing the seeds for the Chiu compromise.

“This was  a real community process and Jane Kim needs to be lauded for taking part in this,” Brooks said, although he later added, “Whatever happens with this, David Chiu owns it because he’s put himself in the middle of this.”

One key piece of the puzzle that might not be resolved tomorrow is with what has always been the biggest concern for activists, which is how the legislation limits appeals to a project’s initial approval. “We knew that it would be way too early and it cuts off our ability to negotiate with developers,” Brooks said.

For complicated legal reasons, it was difficult to build into this legislation a process for activists to challenge a project that changes after its initial approval, so Kim has introduced trailing legislation that would do so (which is set to be heard Wednesday by the Historic Preservation Commission and Thursday by the Planning Commission).

It would allow activists to appeal changes to a project that they find environmentally significant, even if city staff doesn’t (or, in planning parlance, to appeal the environmental review officer’s categorical exemption determination -- to that same officer).

“If the environmental review officer has to suffer the hearing if she makes a bad call, she will make fewer bad calls,” Brooks said. “And if we don’t change the environmental review officers’ mind, we’ll be able to take it to court.”


It is also important to understand that when I say Chiu put himself in the middle of this California Environmental Quality Act struggle, I mean that he did so at great risk of alienating parties on both sides if things didn't go well. To Chiu's credit, he has forged a solid compromise that everyone is going to be able to live with.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Jul. 15, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

Good work, Eric!

Posted by marcos on Jul. 15, 2013 @ 7:31 pm

You just carp from the gallery.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 15, 2013 @ 9:17 pm

"Wiener has always emphasized that his legislation applies only to relatively small projects, those that are 'categorically exempt' under CEQA from having to do detailed environmental studies. And he said the compromises now being developed appear to meet his initial goals."

It's my understanding, per a recent conversation with Acting ERO Sarah Jones, that all the plans to replace grass soccer fields with synthetic turf soccer fields were initially declared categorically exempt in one sweeping decision in early 2007. Community activists fought back against those plans and won in some places (Potrero Hill, among others) and lost in others (Kimball Field) and succeeded in getting the SF Planning Department to intercede and call for an EIR for the Beach Chalet plan. That EIR is now being litigated.

The question, then, is how does one define 'relatively small'?

Posted by Sue on Jul. 15, 2013 @ 9:54 pm

Why anyone cares about them at all, let alone this much, escapes 99% of San Franciscans. Sometime activists speak for nobody but themselves and Weiner understands that.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 3:44 am

Exactly. I sure hope Weiner runs for Mayor at some point, and I really hope he wins! He seems to be the only sane person on the BoS.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 10:16 am

Sue is a great example of why reform is absolutely necessary. I sincerely hope she never intends to renovate her home, no matter how "small" the renovation.

Jane kim on the other hand is a great example of someone who can do Aaron Peskins bidding.
Tell me how often we have heard of Supervisor Kims interest in CEQA or DR?
Exactly... Jane Kim knows how to follow orders.

Posted by Maldita fondada on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 5:21 am

activists is that they do not derive any power from the people. We do not elect them and, in fact, they rarely ask the people what they wish for.

Rather, they are opinionated people who have an agenda and seek to achieve that agenda by extra-democratic means.

I do not trust any activist because, almost by definition, they are biased and self-serving.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 7:17 am

Ronald Reagan signed CEQA into law with powerful provisions for public oversight of governmental discretionary action as relates to environmental impacts.

If Ronald Reagan's vision of public participation in a public process is too liberal for you, then you're off the spectrum of politics, the equivalent of a Stalinist of the right.

Posted by Anony on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 8:08 am

defense, I feel sure that even RR would acknowledge that some zealots take NIMBY'ism too far when they seek to oppose in a kneejerk fashion every change, development and progress.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 8:21 am

The fact remains that today's Democrats find Ronald Reagan's vision of public participation too liberal for them. When it was white suburbanites participating, they had no problem with that. But as California's diversified, yet another carpet that was good enough for the white people has to be rolled up.

Posted by Anony on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 9:08 am
Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 11:43 am

The CEQA law Reagan signed concerned enviro impacts of government projects only, and bears no resemblance to the current law which now extends (in SF) to regulate what your bathroom window looks like. It would be better for everyone if you did your home work and understood how the law has evolved, before injecting yet more general misinformation into the CEQA debate. And dumping political vitriol on top makes no sense, unless your intent is to foul the nest.

Posted by Guest Constance on Dec. 18, 2013 @ 8:21 am

I don't think you can have a conversation about development in sf without acknowledging its the old white folk that are DRing everything.
Why is no one questioning Jane Kim's new found expertise on development politics?

Posted by Greg on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

For, like, no reason at all except that you think you can?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

I am glad that there is some forward movement on CEQA. But I think that the SF permitting process still allows far, far too much compromise, and bends to will of the subjective opinions of activist neighbors - whose primary objective is to stop development. This is also a problem with the discretionary review process.

Our lack of clarity or consistency results in making the overall building process more expensive for everyone, raising the cost of new units as well as pushing small businesses out of the city. I don't think that is activist's intention necessarily, but the results are clear. What would happen if the City brokered a round of talks between their neighborhood organizations/activists and the small businesses, architects and other users who have been failed by the system? Anything?

I am really disappointed that the sierra club is against CEQA reform. Not progressive. They should be out there vocally supporting an infill, urbanist agenda to reduce development pressure on our agricultural and rural lands, and helping to provide reforms for improving our existing neighborhoods.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 12:54 pm

The price of new units has nothing to do with the cost of new units. The price of new units is determined by the market. The cost to build is determined based on what is built and how much the components and labor cost.

There is no public policy rationale for lowering the cost to produce housing given that the market price is so high. That just fast tracks the transformation of neighborhood character into developer profit.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

only a place for the rich. It is our overly-strict land use regulations that have pushed up the price of land and homes. Freeing those up and providing incentives for developers and builders is the only way to ensure affordable homes.

But of course the same liberals who whine about expensive housing are also NIMBY's who want to see their own home values increase by deterring new construction. Greedy and self-serving.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 8:41 pm

Land use regulations have pushed down the supply of housing. But the demand for housing is so extreme that no housing boosters have been able to say how many units we'd need to build over how many years to push down prices by how much.

It is quite likely that no amount of housing will drive prices down.

But you're quite comfortable shifting wealth from San Franciscans into developers' pockets. Why do you hate San Franciscans?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 9:06 pm

then any amount of construction will alter that inbalance and therefore effect prices. Demand for homes only increases because of our successful local economy, and some US cities have declining populations, and therefore declining home prices. If that is what you seek, then move to Detroit.

The only way to get SF home prices down is to build massively in under-used areas like the SE of the city. And build high.

But of course the NIMBY's don't want that - they already have theirs.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 9:17 pm

Prove it. Show your work.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 9:32 pm
Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 9:51 pm

that will cause SF home prices and rents to fall!

Posted by anon on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 11:40 pm

Well...Ed Glaeser has done a lot of work on this nationally, while locally Enrico Moretti at UC berkeley... both are economists writing extensively on cities, regulation and supply and demand.

For current info on the housing imbalance you can take a look at the City's pipeline report showing how many units are built, vs how many jobs we have in the SF. Its just crazy! I live in the E-Bay - couldn't afford to move to SF, but would have liked to for the commute.

I think the rhetoric through out the city about all development = bad is ridiculous. Change should and can be seen as an opportunity that brings value to communities if done well. However, where all development is considered from its starting place as inherently evil, compromise is impossible. It makes building in the city totally antagonistic, instead of a community driven affair.

We should look at the benefits of what we get from promoting housing here in our already supported urban locations - regionally - instead of knee-jerk, anti growth agendas. That is just so 1970s.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 17, 2013 @ 8:53 am

CEQA hasn't done anything to stop the unmitigate transformation of the Richmond from a neighborhood of predominantly owner-occupied Single Family Dwellings into a multi-unit rentals. Architecturally significant properties are turned into "Richmond Specials" and every garage has been converted into an illegal dwelling.

Posted by Richmondman on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

And it will continue. SF seems to be unable to grasp that just making it officially illegal, or more difficult, or more expensive does nothing to prevent it from happening.

I guess we should just continue to be Carmel by the sea with Mayor Sue Hestor.

Posted by Maldita fondada on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

What's so special about SFH's? Especially in a crowded town?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 16, 2013 @ 8:33 pm

Still waiting to learn some examples of the problem the Wiener/Kim CEQA "reform" is supposedly addressing. Early on Wiener cited the Bicycle Plan litigation as an example of CEQA abuse/dysfunction, but that's clearly untrue, if not an outright lie. There were no deadline and/or last-minute appeals. Seems to me that it was clear to us that, after the BOS rejected our appeal, we had 30 days to file the suit.

City Hall is still bitter about our successful litigation that made the city do an EIR on the Bicycle Plan. In fact it was City Hall that was abusing CEQA by giving the Bicycle Plan a General Rule Exemption from environmental review, even though that's supposed to used only for projects that can't possibly have any negative impact on the environment.

City Hall knew that it was not following the law; they just assumed no one would challenge them, and that they could get away with it. The City Attorney and the Planning Dept. simply lied about the CEQA requirements during the hearings, and the city insisted to the bitter end that the 500-page Bicycle Plan couldn't possibly have an impact on the city's environment, even though it proposed taking away thousands of parking spaces and traffic lanes on busy streets to make bike lanes.

Finally, Judge Busch in effect told the city to cut the crap and do an EIR on the Plan.

Posted by Rob Anderson on Jul. 18, 2013 @ 10:43 am

Lets see. who can we believe? A tin hat luddite or public officials bound by tons of sunshine laws?

Posted by Rhinna Sante on Jul. 18, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

You calling me a luddite? How so? Never mind. Obviously logic and clarity aren't your strong suit.

The point is that City Hall isn't really "bound" by much of anything, least of all the law. They do what they want---while covering with lies---and hope no one takes them to court.

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