A developer's wet dream - Page 2

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

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

"It just doesn't happen."

CONSOLIDATED APPEALS

Perhaps the most profound change would eliminate any CEQA appeal for a project that has to go to the supervisors anyway. Wiener's idea: if the board already has to sign off on, say, a zoning change or a special use district or any finances of a project, the environmental review can be done at the same time. "It's as if there's an automatic appeal," he said.

But that conflicts with the concept of environmental review, critics say. No member of the public has the legal right to a sustainable or environmentally sound project; planning commissions, city councils, and county supervisors can, and often do, approve horrible projects.

But everyone has the right to a complete and fair environmental review. CEQA mandates that the decision-makers accept and acknowledge the consequences of their decisions — and if an EIR is flawed, those consequences can be understated.

Wiener would do away with the mandate that the supervisors hold a hearing, accept appeal briefs, and address CEQA questions as a distinct and separate part of a project approval. "The public would be denied the right to a hearing before the full elected body on the adequacy of an EIR or other CEQA determination," a Planning Department staff analysis states. "And if a member of the public introduced new information at the committee hearing, there would be no way for the city to respond to or modify the environmental document."

Among the projects that this provision would affect — where the public would lose the right to appeal an environmental determination: The America's Cup, the Central Subway, the Parkmerced rebuild, the 8 Washington project, and the California Pacific Medical Center's billion-dollar hospital proposal.

The proposal would also change the standard city planners apply when they review projects. The current rules require that the city show there is a "fair argument" that a project would have a significant environmental impact. The new language would mandate the staffers find "substantial evidence" that a full review is needed.

"It is likely more projects would require an EIR under the 'fair argument' standard and fewer projects would require an EIR under the 'substantial evidence' standard," the Hastings analysis concludes.

And while the Board of Supervisors now has to certify that an environmental determination is accurate and correct, Wiener would change that to a determination that the city has made "an independent judgment" on the merits of the review. That, the Hastings lawyers state, "is a more discretionary standard that would be used to uphold an EIR certification decision even if the board determines that the conclusions and findings in the EIR are incorrect."

MORE LAWSUITS?

A lot of the language in the complex package of CEQA changes involves public information and notice.