A developer's wet dream

Wiener offers far-reaching proposals to amend environmental-review laws

|
()
Sup. Scott Wiener has sponsored some of the most controversial legislation of the last two years.
PHOTO BY SF NEWSPAPER CO.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct a statement from Sup. Scott Wiener about affordable housing.

tredmond@sfbg.com

Sup. Scott Wiener is proposing a dramatic overhaul of the city's environmental review process that would limit the ability of citizen activists to appeal projects and could ease the path for major developments.

The new rules — some of which are fairly simple and routine, others more far-reaching — cover the city's interpretation and implementation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the state's venerable land-use and environmental oversight law. The legislation is before the Planning Commission and could reach the supervisors in December.

According to city staff and outside analysts, the Wiener proposals would:

• Eliminate the public's legal right to appeal a ruling by the Planning Commission if the Board of Supervisors has to approve any part of the project.

• Weaken the standard for environmental review by city planners.

• Weaken the public notice requirements for CEQA exemptions.

• Speed up the process for developments by compacting the time frame for CEQA appeals.

"Generally, the amendments decrease the opportunities for individuals and community groups with serious environmental concerns to provide input and assert influence on development projects as part of the CEQA process," an analysis by Community Economic Development Clinic at Hastings College of the Law notes. "The amendments arguably would streamline the CEQA process for various projects, but at the cost of significantly curtailing public participation."

Wiener told us that he wants to eliminate lengthy, sometimes unpredictable appeals. "The goal is to make sure we have a good CEQA process but also a more predictable process," he said. "Right now it's so chaotic and loose that we have unnecessary delays."

Aaron Peskin, a former supervisor and neighborhood activist, calls the proposed legislation "a developer's wet dream. It shuts off or makes impossible citizens' ability to participate in the environmental review process."

WHAT ARE THE ABUSES?

At issue is a critical part of city planning, mandated by state law and sharpened by years of court decisions. Before any project is approved, the city's environmental review officer (ERO) must either determine that the proposal "could not have a significant impact on the environment" or is exempt by law from CEQA review. If not — if in fact the proposal could have an impact — then the project sponsor has to pay for a full environmental impact report.

If any member of the public thinks that the ERO's decision is wrong — or believes that an EIR is inadequate — he or she can appeal to the Board of Supervisors. An appeal halts all work on the project until the supervisors resolve it.

If the board rejects the environmental review, it doesn't kill the project — planners just have to go back and write, or rewrite, an EIR.

On a practical basis, appeals are relatively rare — the city, Peskin told us, makes tens of thousands of CEQA determinations every year, and at most a couple dozen get appealed. "I don't understand what the abuses are," Peskin said.

But in some cases, opponents of a project file a CEQA appeal after they've lost at all the policy bodies — and that, Wiener argues, just slows things down. "If you're going to appeal, then appeal, but don't wait around," he said.

Wiener said his proposals would benefit not only private developers but also nonprofit affordable housing projects. "This will help prevent unnecessary challenges to affordable housing," he told us.

But Calvin Welch, a member of the Council of Community Housing Organizations who has been working to build affordable housing for more than 30 years, told us he doesn't see the problem. "CEQA never gets used to stop affordable housing," he said.