March 20 2013

San Francisco Supervisor Wiener Tackles Environmental Laws, CEQA

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has been the subject of much debate among developers, architects, engineers, public agencies, and activist groups since it was passed back in 1970.

CEQA does not set environmental sustainability standards; rather, it requires that developers undergo specific analytic procedures to identify the environmental impact of their projects and adopt feasible mitigation measures. State and local agencies then provide a series of approvals (or “entitlements”) to move development forward. However, a public appeal can be filed within a month after each approval.

Herein lies the controversy: projects could be delayed for months, or even years, at great cost, transforming CEQA from an environmental assessment into a tool for NIMBYism (NIMBY stands for “Not In My BackYard,” which describes an anti-development attitude based not on the merits of a project, but simply on the preferences of residents impacted by the project). Consequently, the planning process becomes uncertain and the risk developers must take increases, making them more hesitant to invest and build.

In San Francisco, in October of 2012, Supervisor Scott Wiener proposed legislation to modify CEQA so that a public appeal can be filed only after a project’s first entitlement. His aim is “to make [CEQA] more streamlined.”

Supervisor Scott Wiener

Predictably, the proposal was met with much anger and questioning. Some claim that weakening CEQA guidelines would only decrease the accountability developers have over the environmental impact of their projects. Therefore, as cumbersome as CEQA may be, relaxing its guidelines comes at the expense of protecting the environment.

In fact, when Supervisor Wiener proposed the legislation, citizens lined up to object to his proposal for more than 90 minutes. The Planning Commission ultimately called for a more refined version of his proposal and a deeper study into the public opinion over that improved proposal.  Supervisor Wiener is not the first person to attempt reform of CEQA; many others have tried similar changes in the past, without success.

Do you know of any projects that were delayed at unreasonable costs through the exploitation of environmental laws? What sorts of environmental laws have your public agencies created which could help inform this most recent attempt to reform CEQA?

Credits: Image courtesy of Castro Buscuit. Data linked to sources.

Steven Chang

Steven Chang was a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area and held a B.A. in Urban Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. His interest in urban planning began in his hometown of Rowland Heights, California (near Los Angeles), when he noticed that his community, a predominantly ethnic suburb, was very different from other cities he had traveled to. He was very interested in every aspect of urban planning, especially in the way people influence and are influenced by the city fabric. He hoped to one day pursue a Masters of Urban Planning, focusing on economic development and housing. He was also very excited to bring the bustling activity of the San Francisco Bay Area to The Grid!

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 20th, 2013 at 9:57 am and is filed under Blogging Team, Environment, Environmental Design, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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2 Responses to “San Francisco Supervisor Wiener Tackles Environmental Laws, CEQA”

  1. Robert Poole Says:

    Steven,

    I’m so glad you wrote about this. This issue has become huge in San Francisco. I just read a great article about how CEQA, an environmental law, actually harms the environment in the long run because it halts smart growth and dense development. This issue got even more complicated when District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim threw out a last minute legislation before the Planning Commission that would make the process even more complicated. San Francisco has a ridiculous approval process. It seems a lot of these neighborhood activist groups and NIMBYS are afraid of change and want to do whatever they can to keep their neighborhoods the same. However, San Francisco’s population is going to increase dramatically over the course of the next 35 years and we need to find ways to support them. However, it doesn’t look like we’re on the right trajectory.

  2. Steven Chang Says:

    Hi Robert,

    Thanks so much for your comment. CEQA is certainly in desperate need of reform. We definitely need to find a way to create a more systematic, comprehensive discussion around it to protect the environment and promote smart growth and dense development. At the same time, it is important, I think, to keep the entire approval process accountable to the community. I hope the supervisors really find a way to reform CEQA so that it brings developers, the city, and the community together to improve San Francisco’s livability.

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