CEQA reform is a bit like herding cats

A San Francisco Supervisor’s plan to corral a state environmental law has been hog-tied in the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Economic Development Committee, though apparently only temporarily.

Supervisor Scott Wiener is trying revise City codes dealing with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), to make it more manageable and less prone to abuse by those who use The City’s appeal process for lassoing projects they don’t like.

The Committee put off a final decision on exactly what legislation they will eventually pass to the full Board, until after they get a chance to bring ideas from Supervisor Jane Kim’s alternative plan into the rodeo of controversy that this otherwise fairly quiet committee has become lately.

Supervisor Wiener’s ordinance would revise the procedures for how The City handles appeals to CEQA decisions and was introduced five months ago. Both the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission reviewed the proposed changes.

Wiener said:

“This legislation will allow full and complete public participation in projects, whether in support or opposition, and will provide every opportunity to object to projects or to appeal projects. … For the first time it puts a clear process in place so that people know when and how to file an appeal, and so that at some point we reach finality in our decision-making process.”

Wiener mentioned how the recent renovation of Dolores Park was brought to a halt because one person filed a last-minute appeal against a CEQA-based decision:

“Under our current rules that appeal can occur when the project is already in construction. … That appellant who filed the Dolores Park appeal, as with other appellants, has every right to file that appeal but we should at least have clear rules and deadlines in place.”

Board president David Chiu said:

“This intense debate has caused CEQA to become everyone’s new favorite four-letter word.”

An extremely complicated 2008 memo from the City Attorney’s office is now serving as a guide to the appeals process. Chiu said:

“This memo has led to 23 percent of these types of appeals not being filed on time.”

Supervisor Kim’s legislation was introduced last month.

During public comment, many spoke in favor of Wieners legislation. Others wanted to wait until they got a look at Kim’s proposal, and a lot of people spoke against it.

One of the main points of contention is that Wiener’s proposal would limit the right to appeal CEQA decisions by setting a 30-day deadline after a project is first approved and would move public comment on such decisions from the full Board of Supervisors to a board committee.

George Wooding of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council said:

“This process can be abused. … When I talk to citizens they’re very worried that a project, after it has went through the CEQA process, will be changed. (Wiener’s legislation) gives people the right to sugar-coat a project and then after a project is approved they would go ahead and change it.”

Steve Zeltzer of the United Public Workers for Action more blunt in his criticism of Wiener’s legislation:

“It’s interesting that this so-called reform being proposed is also coming alongside Governor Brown’s attack on CEQA, because that’s what this idea of reform is. … It’s to deregulate land use and make it cheaper and more profitable for the developers. That’s really what’s driving this. … I think this really is a fraud.”

On the other hand Tomiquia Moss, the community-planning director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), said SPUR supports Wiener’s legislation:

“Certainly the discussion about the (first-approval) process is one that’s quite controversial and we believe that when a project is fully approved the appeals process should move forward. … We currently know that the process is not working and the appeals process happens at the last approval.”

Fernando Marti of the Council of Community Housing Organizations said his organization supports the idea of revising the City code to improve the public notification process and have a written procedure for appealing CEQA decisions. However, they are concerned with the affect it will have on appealing Environmental Impact Reports (EIR):

“It changes the process for appealing full EIRs, which Supervisor Wiener said was not the intent but in fact it does do that. … Right now, the way the current code is, appeals of a full EIR go to the full Board of Supervisors. … The proposal would change that to be only this committee, so three people would hear that.”

He said the current system requiring the eleven-member Board of Supervisors to hear public comment benefited the community with the recent debate about the EIR for the California Pacific Medical Center:

“CPMC is bringing in a huge number of new workers to work in their new office and hospital. … The EIR appeal process was one way of saying ‘CPMC, has your EIR adequately looked at the impacts of these new workers and how we are going to house those workers, what’s the transportation impacts?’ and so forth.”

Former supervisor Jake McGoldrick dropped by to point out issues he had with Wiener’s plan, like moving public comment on CEQA-approved projects from the full board to a three-person committee, especially when approval of a CEQA decision would then only require the vote of two supervisors:

“Any attempt to try to reduce the public involvement is extremely anti-San Francisco.”

Supervisor Kim acknowledged that the Board has attempted to reform the CEQA process in the past but has failed each time:

“We need a timeline, a clear appeal window that is generally known to everyone in the public … The question is, of course, ‘when does that appeal window begin?’ I think that that’s the debate we’re having here today..”

Kim said she supports improving notification and public outreach but Wiener’s legislation goes too far by changing how the BOS formally deals with EIRs and how the public can appeal them:

“We should leave that as is. That’s not a process that we should touch.”