Is This The Week CEQA Is Reformed?
For the last 12 months proposals to reform the California Environmental Quality Act have circulated in the state capitol in Sacramento. This week may be the week that a reform is finally approved by legislators – perhaps only to be vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. Streetsblog LA reviews the situation regarding CEQA reform:
Followers of the statehouse seem unsure whether the legislation will pass in the last days. Those that believe the effort is doomed point to Steinberg’s recent introduction of legislation that would exempt the construction of a basketball arena in Sacramento from CEQA as proof the Senator doesn’t believe SB 731 will pass. Others note that the Senator is still shopping amendments to 731, something a powerful senior senator wouldn’t do at this stage unless there was a clear endgame.
Further complicating issues, Governor Jerry Brown has hinted he may veto 731 even if it does pass. The governor that once proudly declared he “never met a CEQA exemption he didn’t like,” is worried that if 731 becomes law, stronger legislation won’t pass in future sessions.
Two major issues remain unresolved, and they both involve reforms that should unite environmentalists, urbanists, and transit advocates. The first is the effort to remove impact to traffic as a factor under CEQA. The notorious case of the San Francisco Bicycle Master Plan being held up for years by a CEQA lawsuit charging that adding bike lanes would create more traffic impact is perhaps the highest profile example of the egregious, anti-environment impacts of mandating that traffic impacts be considered under CEQA. That aspect of CEQA is routinely used to block projects that would reduce carbon emissions and protect open space.
Bruce Reznik of the Planning and Conservation League believes such a reform should be included in SB 731:
CEQA reform should eliminate auto delay as a significant impact under CEQA, Reznik argues. The reforms should include requiring compliance with the state’s Complete Streets law, improve transit, bicycle and pedestrian accessibility to jobs, education, housing and services, especially for low-income communities and insure that the impacts of projects and development don’t fall disproportionally on communities of lesser means.
I’ve had my disagreements with PCL in the past, but they are absolutely right on this one.
The other issue is whether CEQA will be reformed to make it easier to build infill development. PCL and other groups wrote to Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg to argue against such changes:
“Unchecked, the displacement of residents and neighborhood-serving businesses that can no longer stay in a neighborhood because of escalating rents/property values brought on by new development, can have significant harmful environmental, social, and health equity consequences. We believe these impacts should be fully incorporated into the CEQA framework. “
Here I part ways (again) with PCL. Their comment is rooted in the flawed theory that infill development is what causes displacement and rising rents. As San Francisco proves, the opposite is the case. Rules that limit or block infill development cause rents to skyrocket, since potential renters are all fighting over a small, finite set of available units. By allowing new infill development, those renters who have more income are able to take the newly built apartments rather than displace someone from an existing unit. New development may not stop rising rents, not without other policies, but they can help increase the vacancy rate and slow the rate of increase, along with giving more protection to current tenants.
Greater infill development is also essential to reducing pressure for construction on open space or in exurbs. By building more housing stock in urban centers, where commutes are usually shorter and non-automobile transportation options are more easily available, carbon emissions are reduced as well.
The guiding principle of CEQA reform needs to be to make it easy for Californians to do the right thing for the environment AND the climate. Addressing the traffic impact issue and making infill development easier are both important aspects of that reform. Hopefully those will pass, in some form, this year.