CEQA Reform Takes Shape for 2013

Jan 2nd, 2013 | Posted by

One of the top issues facing the state legislature in 2013 will be reforming the California Environmental Quality Act. It’s an idea whose time has come. CEQA is popular with environmentalists, but overall it has failed to achieve its goals of producing better development and protecting the state’s environment. Since CEQA’s passage in 1970, sprawl has exploded, carbon emissions have soared, species have been lost, and other environmental impacts have not been averted. Rather than promote environmentally friendly planning, CEQA’s primary use is for NIMBYs who wish to prevent sustainable change. At times it does serve to stop projects that are truly bad for the environment, but those are rare cases, and too many good projects are delayed or made more expensive by the flawed process. California can do better.

Back in August a CEQA reform effort suddenly appeared late in the legislative session. After 33 Democratic legislators balked at the effort, and as widespread criticism was made over the timing, CEQA reform was deferred to 2013.

Since then, advocates of CEQA reform have been hard at work developing a new proposal. Workgroups have met around the state to discuss and assess different ideas. Governor Jerry Brown wants to make CEQA reform a top priority in 2013. And now a specific reform proposal is starting to take shape, as U-T San Diego reports:

Negotiations center on a handful of core proposals:

• A legal challenge could not be filed against a project for failing to adequately address an impact as long as the developer has complied with umbrella state or federal laws that specifically cover the impact, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

I like the idea of aligning environmental legislation as much as possible. This could work, but runs the risk of becoming a loophole if federal laws are weakened further. That risk can be avoided if the project complies with state laws, rather than federal, because California’s environmental laws are likely to be much stronger for the foreseeable future. The details matter, but as a concept, I would say this is at least worth exploring.

• A project could not be challenged in court if it complies with an approved city or county general plan, if those plans have an approved environmental impact report (EIR) and the project is consistent with the Sustainable Communities Strategy launched by Senate Bill 375 authored by Steinberg. That law established a path to lower greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming through “smart growth” building policies that also encourage more alternative transit, from buses to bicycle paths.

The argument made against this kind of provision back in August was that many cities and counties had outdated general plans. This newer proposal is somewhat better, in that it requires general plans to have an approved EIR and comply with SB 375.

As a concept, this provision is a good one. In SPUR’s 2006 report titled Fixing the California Environmental Quality Act they pointed out that Oregon’s process has produced much more environmentally friendly outcomes than CEQA has:

CEQA has contributed to sprawl and worsened the housing shortage by inhibiting dense infill development far more than local planning and zoning would have done alone. To re-form California, we must first reform CEQA…

Our neighbors to the north provide a dramatic model for change. At almost the same moment that California turned to environmental impact reports to protect its environment, Oregon turned to a strengthened planning program, requiring effective local plans and zoning by all jurisdictions. Oregon has protected and greatly improved its natural environment without review of individual projects, but with sound intergovernmental planning. The recent property-rights crusade that passed compensatory zoning at the Oregon ballot box does not lessen the fact that the Oregon environment remains one of the most pristine in the country.

This provision too is worth exploring, but it should be linked to even stronger state and regional planning processes that aim for carbon neutrality while also having strong provisions protecting air, water, and addressing environmental justice concerns. Environmentalists have leverage here and should push for such a linkage.

Back to the emerging CEQA reform proposal

• Those filing lawsuits must reveal their financial interests and who is paying the legal costs. There is also debate on whether to extend those transparency requirements to the local planning process as well so decision-makers know whether a protest is being lodged out of genuine concern for the environment or if there is a profit motive.

Transparency strikes me as reasonable as long as it does not inhibit justice.

Almost as important as the legal provisions themselves are the way these reforms are being discussed. From the U-T article come these quotes:

“The challenging thing about a law like this is everybody knows it needs fixes,” Steinberg said. ”The question is, what are the fixes that preserve the strength of the law and at the same time (address abuses)? That’s what we will grapple with.”

Steinberg has been the leader of the State Senate since 2008, and in that time he has shown he means what he says, and is a friend of the environment. I do not see anything to suggest he would help dismantle CEQA and allow a loophole-riddled process to emerge.

Of greater concern is the way Senator Michael Rubio, a moderate Democrat (and strong HSR supporter) from Bakersfield is citing a pivotal case from San Diego as an argument for CEQA reform:

The debate — a continuation of a frantic late campaign last summer to make the law more business friendly — is also being fueled by an early December court order rejecting a $200 billion, 40-year regional transportation plan adopted by the San Diego Association of Governments.

The SANDAG plan improperly permits greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming to increase from 2020 through 2050, a judge ruled, siding with critics of the plan. But it does comply with reduction standards in state law through 2020 and was given the green light by the state Air Resources Board, SANDAG maintains.

The San Diego case illustrates what’s wrong with the law, according to Sen. Michael Rubio, a Bakersfield Democrat and leader in the drive to make it more difficult to use what is commonly known as CEQA to challenge projects in court.

“It highlights the point that you can meet or exceed the law and still get sued and stopped,” Rubio said.

I strongly support this lawsuit and believe it is an excellent example of the direction that regional planning ought to be headed. SANDAG’s plan is a ridiculous relic of the 20th century, focusing on more freeways and more sprawl. It would allow carbon emissions to increase beyond 2020, which is simply unacceptable. The plan needs to be thrown out and SANDAG needs to start over, producing a plan that focuses on transit and carbon emission reductions. Senator Rubio does not do his cause any favors by citing the SANDAG case as a justification for CEQA reforms, and I would oppose reforms that would have the effect of letting that flawed SANDAG plan become law.

Environmentalists are wary of CEQA reform, and I’m sure that Senator Rubio’s comments aren’t helping. There is growing unease about rules regarding fracking, which is only now coming to California in a big way but could have a lucrative future given the huge reserves in the Monterey Shale. And given that it’s moderates from both parties and business interests pushing CEQA reform, environmental advocates are not likely to grow any fonder of this emerging process.

However, I believe it would be wrong for environmentalists to sit this process out. CEQA reform is going to happen in 2013. Governor Brown wants it, and there appear to be enough Democrats who could cobble together a majority with Republicans to pass something. Such an alliance would probably not produce a good reform. But environmentalists would only hasten such an outcome by not engaging. CEQA reform should be a purely Democratic product that is crafted and passed without Republican votes. That means environmentalists should offer their own proposal and try to define the debate on their terms.

What would such a proposal look like? It would not just focus on CEQA, but on how land use and project planning is done. It would set out clear guidelines for projects to follow, emphasizing density and carbon emissions reductions. A better CEQA would be aligned with an even stronger AB 32 and SB 375.

It would reduce opportunities for NIMBYs to oppose taking action to address climate change by excluding things such as aesthetics and traffic impacts from environmental reviews. It would also exempt, or provide expedited review of, major infrastructure projects that reduce carbon emissions. This includes not just high speed rail, but other local electrified transit projects, along with solar and wind projects. Bike and pedestrian plans would be completely exempt from any kind of environmental review, as they should be.

SPUR’s 2006 report provides some welcome specificity:

We propose the following principles to help us think about how to improve CEQA:

1. Cities should continue to rely on developers to pay a pro rata portion of the cost of developing plans, policies, zoning and zoning approvals, and whatever environmental assessment is needed involving their sites. This may require a new form of assessment or exaction.

2. Whatever system is used in place of CEQA must ensure that the state’s unique environment is fully protected. Sound policy respecting the environment should be included in newly defined and updated general plans.

3. CEQA reform should reflect sound planning tenets, particularly those mandating a regionwide perspective on all urban and environmental matters, so that the result will be intensified population centers and protected greenfield areas viewed at a regional scale.

4. All development-related processes—planning, zoning, and environmental assessment, should be coordinated so that they use common environmental thresholds, standards, and criteria, interact smoothly, and do not require separate bureaucracies to administer. The imposing of expense and delay are not worthy growth-management measures.

5. Guidance about which projects are desirable and which ones are not should be offered to applicants before a project is underway, not after enormous investment in planning and redesign after environmental assessment.

6. Environmental review procedures should consider the location of a project, and not treat all projects, no matter the setting, in a one-size-fits-all mode. A development that would be environmentally beneficial inside a city next to transit might be environmentally harmful on the suburban periphery or in exurban, rural, or open settings.

7. Absent CEQA, the planning process should include mechanisms to grapple with the impact of land-use decisions on low-income communities in urbanized areas.

All of these principles should be acceptable to environmentalists, as they include protections for sensitive areas, address environmental justice, and are consonant with the processes that are required to reduce carbon emissions. It is oriented around the apparently radical idea that state environmental laws should encourage people to do the good things, rather than just trying to mitigate the bad things.

CEQA reform is an opportunity to move beyond a flawed model that has failed to protect environmental quality and has become a tool to block action to address climate change. This law is going to be changed, but that change will only be a positive one if environmentalists, transit advocates, and progressives stand up and take control of the process, rather than hang back out of fear.

  1. synonymouse
    Jan 3rd, 2013 at 12:54


    Those are truly some ugly-ass aerials in China’s hsr. I wonder how they keep the bums away. A linear urban slum.

    In California they’d have to deploy copious amounts of razor wire to fence out the low lifes and homeless.

  2. Ted Judah
    Jan 3rd, 2013 at 23:31

    Part of the problem is the extent of local control in California versus a place like Oregon. It’s true that CEQA is more effective as red tape than as a true barrier to sprawl. But the solution of statewide planning (which is Oregon’s strategy) probably could not be implemented without a host of other tricky changes to state law that have nothing to do with land use.

    The key is to make CEQA an administrative process, not a legal one and to make sure there is uniformity between tribunals so that county courts can’t split over various opinions.

    Rich Reply:

    Ted Judah’s idea is the single most effective step in CEQA reform but I doubt anything so bold could ever be embraced by the legislature. The fundamental purpose of CEQA is and should be disclosure of the environmental impacts of a new project in order to inform decision-making. CEQA adequacy should be determined as an administrative process focusing on fact by disinterested parties, not as a legal fight between interested parties. Remove the ability to sue and replace it with a non-legal administrative appeal to a dedicated professional reviewing body (perhaps the Office of Planning & Research) and you will remove a huge source of CEQA document bloat and project delay. This would be a bold change that would be much more effective than the incremental tinkering called “streamlining” or “reform” that the legislature attempts ever so often, that achieves little actual streamlining in the real world. Take the lawyers out of the equation and return the process to being one about information and fact, not advocacy and argument.

  3. Reality Check
    Jan 4th, 2013 at 00:41

    Amtrak wants lighter, faster HSR trains for NEC; FRA working on HSR train safety standards:

    Faster Northeast Trains Require Safety Changes, Amtrak CEO Says

    Amtrak will recommend new U.S. rail-safety regulations to allow it to replace its Acela trains in the Northeast U.S. with lighter, faster equipment, Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman said.

    U.S. crashworthiness standards force Amtrak to use trains that have locomotives on both ends and are slower and heavier than bullet trains used in Europe and Asia, Boardman said in an interview. Those standards reflect that U.S. passenger trains often share tracks with freight railroads rather than operating on their own lines.

    Existing standards apply to trains traveling as much as 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour). Writing new rules that relax railcar structural-strength requirements for faster trains “would allow for less use of fuel, quicker acceleration, a different performance profile,” Boardman, 64, said. “What we’re really looking for is a performance specification here.”


    Safety standards for passenger trains operating at more than 150 mph are being developed, Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said in an e-mail. Amtrak is “working with FRA and other members of the Railroad Safety Advisory Council to better define the car strength criteria for higher-speed passenger equipment,” he said.

    Amtrak’s long-term plan for high-speed service in the Northeast envisions those trains running on dedicated tracks.

  4. Reality Check
    Jan 4th, 2013 at 02:40

    Caltrain sets lofty 45-65% farebox recovery rate goal

    With ridership growing steadily, Caltrain has outlined ambitious operating goals that could make the regional rail operator one of the most efficient transit agencies in the country.

    During the past 8½ years, Caltrain has more than doubled the farebox recovery rate in which it recoups day-to-day operating costs through transit fares. It has posted a 65 percent rate in the current fiscal year, which is higher than most of its peers in the Bay Area and well above the agency’s stated goal of 38 to 50 percent.

    Taking that recent success into account, Caltrain adopted new farebox goals Thursday that would set a range of 45 percent to 65 percent for cost recovery during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The agency opted to go with that goal because it reflects current industry trends and is further evidence that the system is continuing to grow — average weekday ridership on Caltrain is 49,421 passengers, a 12 percent increase from last year.

    If Caltrain achieved the upper echelon of that range, it would be among the most cost-efficient transit systems in the U.S. The average farebox recovery rate for the Bay Area’s two dozen transit agencies is 23.51 percent, according to data collected by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional transit planner.

    joe Reply:

    Does not say how they’ll reach that goal but it the phrasing worries me. Raising fares to cover costs isn’t a useful measure of efficiency. Fare increases hurt ridership and fare cuts will NOT bring lost riders back.


    What Affects Transit Ridership? A Dynamic Analysis involving Multiple Factors, Lags and Asymmetric Behaviour
    This study seeks to determine the relative impacts of various factors in affecting ridership, to quantify their short-run and long-run effects, and to test the symmetry in ridership in response to rises and falls in gasoline price and transit fare. The results show that the effect of gasoline price, albeit small, is significant, extends over a year and mainly derives from its rise not fall. Fare is most influential both in terms of short-term and long-term elasticities and its effect is largely contributed by fare increases. The combination of these two results points to the policy of increasing gasoline price over decreasing transit fare to encourage ridership. On the relationship between service and fare, the results support the ‘demand follows supply’ hypothesis. The results also provide empirical evidence that ridership responds differentially between a rise and a fall in gasoline price or transit fare.

    If we have decreasing gas prices and increasing fare then Caltrain can lose riders. Cutting fares wil not bring them back.

    synonymouse Reply:

    In order to avoid fare hikes it is necessary to control payroll. Very difficult in a welfare state. Shopping for a cheaper union usually involves setting up a local agency(Sonoma County Transit instead of GGT)or going out to bid for an operator, as in Marin County.

    joe Reply:

    Cutting salary doesn’t increase efficiency either.

    But that’s an idea. Can we cut your benefits instead? I’m thing of precise, target cuts and then credit Caltrain.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Kaiser already cut my benefits. I got obama’d to the tune of an extra $140 a month.

    If you want to cut some benefits start with the UC Chancellor making half a mil/yr.

    Or that of Kimiko Burton, daughter of the machine boss, running the State agency overseeing anti-nepotism laws.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Or that of Kimiko Burton, daughter of the machine boss, running the State agency overseeing anti-nepotism laws.

    Don’t sell her short. Takes one to know one.

    synonymouse Reply:

    snappy retort, I must say.

    How’s this?

    Extending the California cable line from Van Ness to Steiner makes about as much sense as the Tehachapi DeTour, is about as efficient, will have about the same 10% load factor, will be a lot more fun, and lose less money due to the bloated tourist fares.

    Oh and what, cost $20mil instead of $20bil. I just picked that figure out of the air. Take the 1980’s reconstruction per block of new cable car trackage figure and double it and multiple by 10 blocks approx. My point is if we’re throwing money away on pet projects let’s go for broke. Why should Villa and Antonovich have it all to themselves.

    Joey Reply:

    Outside of MUNI, overstaffing is probably a bigger problem than overpaying. You don’t need 3 people on every regional train.

    swing hanger Reply:

    re. cost-efficiency, an interesting look at farebox recovery ratios around the world:

  5. Adina
    Jan 4th, 2013 at 10:20

    The current farebox recovery is in the middle of the range. Last year was 58.6%, year before was 50.7%. So they don’t need to raise fares, just continue as is.

    If they kept the previous range (38 to 50 percent) as their budget guideline, they wouldn’t be able to plan their upcoming FY 2014 budget for the amount of rider revenue they are getting now.


  6. jamesdoell
    Jan 4th, 2013 at 15:07

    Leaked Settlement Shows How NIMBYs “Greenmail” Developers

    A few years ago, a developer had a plan to put up roughly 100 condos atMelrose and Larchmont, but the development was challenged by local homeowners’ group La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association. Eventually, the developer and the homeowners association settled under confidential terms. The story is all pretty standard in the world of Los Angeles development–California has a very controversial statute called the California Environmental Quality Act that’s supposed to allow little guys to take on big, potentially environment-destroying or neighborhood-changing projects. But the practice is often abused, projects get held up in lawsuits for years, and there have been a million calls for some kind of reform (they’ve been getting louder lately). Now here’s a new piece of the puzzle: the leaked terms of that confidential settlement between the developer and La Mirada (which has challenged several projects in Hollywood under CEQA).
    The documents reveal a practice sometimes called “greenmail,” in which businesses and homeowners groups use the threat of CEQA-based lawsuits to generate cash from developers for things that have nothing to do with the environment. Because land use agreements are confidential, the public isn’t aware of these agreements–they are also cut out of negotiations between challengers and developers to change the size, scope, and design of the development. “This is business as usual, but everyone acts like it doesn’t happen,” says a local developer with knowledge of the project who spoke under terms of anonymity.
    The document, leaked from an anonymous source in City Hall (and with the developer’s name redacted), includes the details of a settlement agreement between La Mirada (represented by notorious Hollywood-development-challenging lawyer Robert Silverstein) and the former developer of the property at 5641 Melrose Avenue. The leaked agreement states that the developer will pay to cover attorney’s fees and costs: “[redacted] shall pay and deliver to La Mirada the sum of NINETY THOUSAND DOLLARS ($90,000) for La Mirada’s costs, and attorney’s fees and costs.” The developer also agreed to pay a monitoring payment: “[redacted] shall pay to La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association of Hollywood the sum of TWO HUNDRED FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS ($250,000) to be used as La Mirada sees fit.”
    In exchange for this payment, “La Mirada … shall not commence, support, file, or participate in any administrative appeal of any litigation … challenging or in any way attempting to interfere with or otherwise modify, limit or delay the Revise Project.” Two confidential sources also confirmed that the parcel has changed hands since this agreement was approved, and the lot remains undeveloped–it was announced last fallthat California Landmark Group planned to put up an 85-unit apartment building on the site.
    The document provides hard evidence for this common practice. “We absolutely don’t know what happens with the money. Typically in a settlement, there is no limit on how much money or what the money can be used for,” says Jennifer Hernandez, partner at the firm Holland & Knight (she runs the firm’s West Coast Land Use and Environment Practice Group) and author of A Practical Guide to Implementing the California Environmental Quality Act. Hernandez describes the lawyers who seek financial sums unrelated to the laws that they are suing under as “bounty hunters.” CEQA provides such bounty hunters with a loophole that can be easily exploited without the knowledge of the public: “Unlike all other parts of CEQA, litigation is remarkably shielded from transparency. You can hide who you are suing on behalf of, and you can hide what you settled for.”

La Mirada and Silverstein are frequent opponents of development in Hollywood and beyond. La Mirada has thrown up the stop sign for the 20-story tower planned for the corner of Hollywood and Gower, theHollywood Community Plan to guide planning in the neighborhood, and the CIM development of the Old Spaghetti Factory site. Robert Silverstein has slowed the progress of the huge mixed-use Blvd6200, the Gold Line Foothill Extension, and the Thom Mayne-designed Emerson College campus. (Neither Silverstein nor Doug Haines, who heads La Mirada, responded to multiple requests for comment.) The natural question is whether the money lost to greenmail would be better spent on design improvements, quality of life or infrastructure investments, or for some kind of public benefit.
    The “Hall of Shame” (as Hernandez describes it) of bounty hunters seeking economic settlements under environmental statutes features more than just La Mirada and Silverstein. Hernandez also includes unions, which sometimes seek project labor agreements, and economic competitors (e.g., in the case of the University Gateway development near USC). “California is also unique in allowing unincorporated associations–informal groups with no legal standing–to sue and not disclose their identity.” That makes it impossible to know who is even truly responsible for lawsuits. Hernandez cites statistics (pdf) showing that local associations–not formal groups like the Sierra Club or the National Resource Defense Council–brought nearly three-quarters of lawsuits involving CEQA’s Environmental Impact Reviews between 1997 and 2012. Of the lawsuits by local associations, 43 percent originate from unincorporated associations, meaning that the public has zero information about the group or its backers.
    Over on the other side of Los Angeles, a new lawsuit might finally be making some headway in exposing the extent of greenmail practices in Los Angeles. Notorious NIMBY neighborhood group the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association and its leader Diana Plotkin have recently been sued for their alleged shenanigans, according our pals at Eater LA: “The suit claims that Plotkin and her group accepted bribes and business donations in exchange for favorable recommendations to businesses seeking permits, variances and licenses from the city. Additionally, the suit states that the BWHA’s directors refused ‘reasonable’ settlements from businesses, and instead pursued legal action to obtain attorney’s fees and other gifts.”
    The greenmail problem, Hernandez notes, is unique to California’s backwards use of a statute like CEQA: “In other states and under NEPA [a federal law similar to CEQA], if your interests are primarily economic, you cannot sue under an environmental statute … California has gone in a remarkably different direction.”

    Nathanael Reply:


    Sounds like transparency rules are badly needed. There’s nothing wrong with an unincorporated association *which specifies the names of every individual who is actually backing the lawsuit*, but this shadowy behavior is not OK. And the secretive settlements for cash are incredibly unacceptable.

    joe Reply:

    This is how Palo Alto and Menlo Park operate. The Stanford Student Newspaper has openly editorialized against this EIR based extortion.

    Stanford Hospital Expansion was opposed by Menlo Park. EIR objections after being promised 3.5 Million for TBD Traffic Mitigation.

    Nathanael Reply:

    “In other states and under NEPA [a federal law similar to CEQA], if your interests are primarily economic, you cannot sue under an environmental statute … ”

    This is an interesting approach. If this were actually applied nationally, this would eliminate most of the NEPA claims that “more parking” is needed. After all, parking is primarily an economic interest. Health, safety, and preservation of endangered ecosystems would qualify as “not economic”; perhaps social activities might too (“we need more parking so people can come to parties”), but not the typical claims.

    Derek Reply:


  7. Reality Check
    Jan 5th, 2013 at 13:07

    Inside China’s High-Speed Rail Triumph
    China’s new high-speed train isn’t just a technological marvel — it’s a PR breakthrough after years of scandal and criticism. Melinda Liu on Beijing’s bumpy ride, and the huge Lunar New Year challenge the rail line faces this month.

    The high-speed journey through five provincial capitals now takes eight hours, compared with the 22-hour trip on older, conventional trains. First-class tickets cost the equivalent of $221, more expensive than an economy-class air ticket. Although the plane ride is only three hours long, riding the rails appeals to business travelers tired of the hassles of air travel, including the frequent delays that have infuriated passengers so much that riots have broken out at airline counters. “A journey on the train is more pleasant,” businessman Yang Zengyu told local media after taking the newly inaugurated train. “Even for frequent fliers like me, It’s an attractive alternative.” The main drawback, he said, was the lack of reliable Internet access on the train.


    Now, with the successful opening of the Beijing-Guangzhou line, the high-speed campaign is back on track. Many suspended projects have resumed construction, and the ministry has secured $96 billion in investment for rail infrastructure next year. Railways Ministry transport bureau deputy head Zhao Chunlei announced that the country’s network of high-speed lines, linking secondary routes to major ones, are on schedule for completion by 2015 — and by 2020 the nation’s rail system will include 120,000 kilometers of track that connect all provincial capitals and cities with populations exceeding half a million.


    Last but not least, some of the biggest rail travelers — China’s rural-born migrant workers who work far from home — are finding the cost of high-speed rail tickets too high. “High-speed rail tickets are unaffordable for most migrant workers, so the railway authorities should operate more low-speed rail lines during travel peak periods,” Shuai Bin, a professor at the School of Traffic and Logistics at Southwest Jiaotong University, told the China Daily.

    Authorities will be doing just that during the 40-day “spring festival travel period,” which begins in late January. Many Chinese migrant workers will head to their rural hometowns during the longest and most important vacation of the year, the weeklong lunar New Year holiday. The number of rail trips taken during this period usually exceeds China’s 1.3 billion population — in 2008 the figure hit 2 billion. Every year, the travel crush presents a huge challenge to China’s rail system, as it tries to cope with the biggest annual human migration in the world.

    Miles Bader Reply:

    Er, it may indeed be a PR breakthrough, but it’s not a technological marvel at all, it’s the exact same tech that’s been used for ages elsewhere…

  8. Rich
    Jan 5th, 2013 at 21:57


    I’m glad you are writing on CEQA reform, but I have to say your article displayed the exact reasons why CEQA has been so distorted. You decry that CEQA is used to hamper “good” projects like high-speed rail and infill development but then you advocate that the SANDAG CEQA lawsuit is a good thing because it is stopped the RTP/SCS that you think is a “bad” plan. You are advocating that CEQA should support the things that you support and frustrate or stop the things you don’t support.

    That partisan approach to seeking political outcomes through CEQA is the reason why CEQA is so frustrating and inefficient today. CEQA should NOT be used to make decisions. CEQA should be used to inform decisions. Its fundamental purpose is and should be to inform decision-making, but through the intervention of interested parties using legal appeal, it is often used as a means to pressure different decisions. It is that kind of partisan pressure that distorts the whole process, makes documents go to extraordinary excess lengths to try and inoculate themselves from legal challenge, and which puts delay upon delay on projects moving forward. As long as CEQA is seen as a political and legal arena for interested parties to fight, CEQA will be inefficient.

    I would much rather see CEQA return to being an informative process focused on information and fact instead of legal argument. I’ve been a CEQA practitioner for over 20 years and have seen the distortions and inefficiencies that occur. I honestly think the best CEQA reform idea is to remove CEQA from the courts and make it an administrative process only.

    As to your other points about making planning more robust – that’s a fair area of debate. I don’t think the legislature is about to take local land use authority away from cities and counties, even though that might result in more “rational” regional planning than the balkanized approach we have today. But I would much rather see a strong debate about what we want out of planning…instead of an effort to turn CEQA into some kind of outcome-oriented politicized process that is a not-so hidden proxy used when an interested party doesn’t get their way through the normal decision-making process.

    joe Reply:


    Than you for informing us about CEQA. Now that I am informed, I can do what I please.
    You can see that CEQA is not just about informing. That’s toothless. EIR becomes a ceremony.

    One could come up with some measurable arguments to contrast SANDAG with HSR. There are metrics based on environmental parameters to quantify the differences. This constrast is not about aesthetics.

    Parisian politics are people politics. People have real disagreements about transportation and that’s okay. Politics and Courts settle disagreements. Administrators do not.

    Your administrative solution favors bi-partisan ship by removing people, establishing a “administrator” assuring that MONEY and power are unchecked.

    Jonathan Reply:

    Parisian politics? Good one! You mean a street-corner cafe with Gauloises, or are you the victim of a spell-checker “correcting” a typo of “partisan”?

    Rich Reply:


    I’m not advocating removing people from the decision-making process. Decision-makers can and should be influenced by people advocating their views about public policy. Planning processes can and should involve partisans of whatever stripe desire to advocate their position – that is democracy in action.

    The SANDAG RTP/SCS or HSR can be evaluated on their merits by decision-makers and the voters either acting through their own representatives and/or at the ballot box.

    This thread started with Robert’s article advocating CEQA reform, which he has promoted over the last year as one way to try and remove what he perceives of as obstacles to HSR and infill development. What I pointed out is that regardless of the merits of HSR or infill development, Robert is advocating that CEQA, which is an informational process, should be used to promote his view of what is a good project and used to stop what he views as a bad project. I have a different view. I think CEQA should be used to disclose the environmental impacts of projects, without making value judgments. Then, the decision-making/planning process should make the value judgments instead informed by the political process.

    I agree that there are many disagreements about transportation and land use and those can and should be debated as a matter of policy. But when we use a process meant to inform(CEQA) as yet another forum for partisan bickering – we end up with badly informed decisions. The focus in CEQA should be about getting the correct information. The focus of planning and the decision-making process should be about determining what we as a society want, which should always be a people-drive process. On that I think we agree!

    joe Reply:

    What I pointed out is that regardless of the merits of HSR or infill development, Robert is advocating that CEQA, which is an informational process, should be used to promote his view of what is a good project and used to stop what he views as a bad project.

    There is no PI or constant we can compute when evaluating projects. Decisions involve subjectivity and value system(s).

    There are metrics, measurable things that while imperfect, can be applied and when applied back-up Robert’s preferences.

    You have preferences too. They differ. That’s okay. Even if we can agree on the data and facts, our value system can result in different choices.

    People disagree. We always have and always will. When that disagreement carries weight in a decision it is called a representative democracy and it involves partisan bickering. The public fight isn’t pretty or accurate but the system we have is based on contentions, not harmony.

    CEQA is contentious and it is decided in an adversarial forum, The Courts. Of the three branches of government, that’s the least corruptible by short term popular opinion.

  9. jimsf
    Jan 6th, 2013 at 09:49

    Reform is needed but you can’ttake away local control. Here in slo county, its a virtual paradise and we want to keep it that way. It reminds me of the bay area back before it was overrun and over populated.

    The real answer to our growth problem is to annex nevada and make all the new people live over there

    L.A. Sprawl Creeps North — Californians Fret As Urban Sprawl Creeps Into Central Coast, Valleys
    By Jeff Wilson
    SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. – The rolling hills of the central coast used to be the stuff of California dreams. Now, outlet malls and housing tracts grace some of America’s most beautiful coast and valleys.

    Sunny California is beginning to feel more like an urban nightmare for some residents clinging to rural memories of just a generation ago.

    “We’re going to turn into Los Angeles. It’s a common phrase now,” Sierra Club activist Ada Babine said of the rapid growth in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, north of Los Angeles. “It’s really spooky. We’re getting very nervous.”

    The cause is simple: With urbanization nearly complete from the Mexico border to just north of sprawling L.A., developers consider the central coast inviting turf.

    It’s long been one of the Golden State’s most picturesque regions, where waves crash against rocky outcroppings, vineyards produce quality grapes for a growing wine industry and cattle graze in hills shaded by oaks. Its strawberries, grapes and vegetables are served across the country.

    But bulldozers have carved up great stretches of the landscape. In the place of verdant fields are Target, Office Max, McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr. and housing for thousands of transplanted southerners – as in Southern Californians.

    Commuters now see Los Angeles-style traffic jams and housing along Highway 101 hiding the scenic oceanfront views.

    The numbers speak to the growth: Santa Barbara County’s population grew by 20,000 in eight years to 389,502 as of July 1998, the latest census figures available. San Luis Obispo County jumped by more than 17,000 residents to 234,366.

    The growing pains are worse in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Orange and San Diego counties. But the pace of the development is worrying residents.

    Jeff Bliss packed up and moved his wife and two kids from suburban Los Angeles to Los Osos six months ago. He has heard some express fear about the flight from Los Angeles.

    “They say, `How can we keep people from moving up here? Can we get everyone out who wasn’t here before 1989?’ ” Bliss said. “When I say I’m from Southern California people say, `Oh boy, I bet you’re glad to be up here.’

    “There’s pity for people in Los Angeles,” he added.

    Even some developers are nervous about the boom.

    “Given the type of urban growth north and south of here, there is cause for alarm over runaway growth,” said developer Rob Rossi, a 30-year-old resident of San Luis Obispo. “But there needs to be balance.”

    They may draw a page from Southern California.

    Growth-limiting measures have been popping up all over the southern half of the state. The city councils of Indio, Lancaster, Palmdale and Santa Monica are among those imposing building moratoriums. All four plans are under review by the state.

    New anti-growth efforts also are showing up on the central coast.

    The Paso Robles City Council recently voted to ban new applications for multifamily housing projects and vowed to devote efforts to open space and density concerns. A proposal requiring farmers to get permits before cutting down oaks was recently approved by the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors.

    But the simple demographics of the nation’s most populous state make such efforts difficult, if not impossible. Projections show California’s population will swell to about 59 million by 2040 from about 34 million today.

    Ted Gibson, chief economist of the California Department of Finance, estimates up to 225,000 new housing units are needed statewide each year to keep up.

    “The central coast is going to be right in the thick of this,” Gibson said

  10. synonymouse
    Jan 6th, 2013 at 11:10

    Thoroughly depressing but inexorable scenario.

    That is how they plan to address the issue of “California is running out of taxpayers.”

    The purpose of the Palmdale-Techachapi deviation is to sprawl another LA in the high desert. They absolutely have to vastly increase the commute numbers to justify the very large subsidies the Roundabout will require to keep trains rattling over 50 extra miles of meander. It won’t be backwoods anymore when they are done; it will be LA.

    How the greenies, enviros, tree-huggers, Sierra Clubbers et al, got duped into supporting this grotesque developers wetdream is beyond belief.

    Derek Reply:

    Apparently you don’t know what sprawl is.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Please, a detailed expose of the fine points, traits, and signatures of sprawl.

    Derek Reply:

    Sprawl is low density development. It doesn’t naturally occur near train stations.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    Please do visit North America some time.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Derek is correct. Sprawl doesn’t naturally occur near train stations. Not even in North America.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Low density means the houses feature some kind or degree of yard?

    IMHO sprawl means development, particularly any kind of housing, where there was greenfield before. In California most all development, even in-fill, is a sprawl in one way or another and entails negative demands on the natural environment. California is way more than full enough.

    Villa and Antonovich’s high desert LA County and beyond to Kern will yield to the quintessence of sprawl. Thus the CHSRA devolves into an environmental nuisance.

    Jonathan Reply:

    Synon has clearly never seen the Peninsula !!!

    Derek Reply:

    Synonymouse, train stations don’t attract houses, they attract condos and mixed-use developments.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    In North America, train stations mostly attract parking lots.

    Nathanael Reply:

    No, they don’t. Yes, they attract some parking lots, particularly intercity train stations in areas with no mass transit, but *everything* attracts parking lots in such places.

    Sometimes enormous parking lots are *forced on them* by NIMBYs, zoning laws, abuse of environmental regulations, etc.

    But on the whole, train stations attract “dense development”, as anyone who’s lived on the Pennsylvania Main Line will tell you.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The MBTA and LIRR have both moved stations out of cores of small towns and out of the built-up areas so that they can have more parking.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    I’m looking at a fair amount of sprawl near Haute-Picardie and Aix-en-Provence TGV.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Well, if you build the station in a beetfield, increased density would look like sprawl. I’d suggest putting the station in an actual town.

  11. joe
    Jan 6th, 2013 at 11:38

    That is how they plan to address the issue of “California is running out of taxpayers.”

    People know what this terms refers to and it’s why the GOP is a shriveling minority.

    Organ donate your brain for future display at the Le Brea Tar Pits Museum along with the Mammoth, Giant Sloth, Saber-tooth tiger and Dire wolf.

    synonymouse Reply:

    say what?

    The California economic model revolves upon anticipated unlimited population growth and concomitant development. Steady-state or sustained is not in the picture.

    There is no such thing a “smart growth”. That is just developer pr; there is only more growth or less growth. As it stands neither the pols nor the public is content with the lackluster growth we are currently experiencing. I don’t think they are ready for any other model than “Laisser rouler le bon temps”.

    Hey, “Texas Chainsaw” in 3d is #1 at the box office. Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

    jimsf Reply:

    Hell must be freezing over because I have to agree with syn this time. Its true. The cali economic model is based on exactly what its been based on for most of its history. continued population expansion. Over time it has been divided into two camps. The nice areas with high housing values in geographically beautiful settings where people are putting a halt to growth because they don’t want the place destroyed, they don’t need the money, and they don’t need the environmentalist to do the dirty work, they just all agree on the no growth zoning.
    And the other undesirable, geographically ugly parts of the state such as the central valley, where cities and counties rubber stamp any kind of growth and developement they can get their hands on from shopping centers to tract homes – anything to get tax revenues to help fill empty coffers (and where the local population is too busy trying to survive to have the luxury of being “involved”)

  12. synonymouse
    Jan 6th, 2013 at 19:06

    Unfortunately even in the “desirable” areas there are some really trashy developments. Here in Sonoma County the newspaper gets all pushed out of shape about Indian casinos supposedly ruining the place but push pretty much every other kind of development and definitely every road and freeway expansion.

    Whenever something questionable or mediocre happens it usually involves a handful of insiders getting their way. Problem is a lot of the time their judgment is not equal to the task. And there is nothing you can do about it.

    Once in a while the dummies get overruled. I am thinking of Mr. Klussman, who in 1047 singlehandedly organized the campaign to save the cable cars when all the civic powers and all the blinking “expert” consultants were hell-bent to rip them up. They were too stupid to grasp what a tourist goldmine they were ready to trash.

  13. synonymouse
    Jan 6th, 2013 at 19:08

    Sorry, Mrs. Friedel Klussman.

    synonymouse Reply:

    And in 1947. Where is that edit feature?

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