CEQA change moves faster in SF than Sacto

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Examiner file photo

So the Guv says he doesn't think he's going to be able to gut CEQA this year. I think he's right: The party he supposedly leads (but doesn't tend to follow him) won't go for it, any more than the party Obama leads will got for cuts to Social Security.

It's partly that both are hard-fought pieces of progressive history. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a good time for the environmental movement -- Congress passed both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, and Nixon signed both. The California Legislature passed CEQA in 1970, and Gov. Reagan signed it. Back then, even Republicans thought it was a good thing to be on the side of protecting the planet.

But there's more -- and it's interesting that the state Leg, typically not known as a bastion of progressive thought, is better on this issue than San Francisco, where some sort of changes to CEQA are almost inevitable.

Some background:

What NEPA and CEQA did, first and foremost, was eliminate the problem of "standing" that had plagued environmental lawyers for years. If I couldn't prove that a horrible development project on the San Francisco waterfront would personally injure me (which would typically mean I had to own adjacent property), I had no right to go to court to oppose it. CEQA mandates a valid, complete environmental review of any major project, which gives anyone the right to sue; I may not be able to describe specific financial damages from a project, but as a citizen, I have a legal right to an adequate Environmental Impact Report.

Likewise, anyone can appeal a development in San Francisco to the Board of Supervisors on the grounds that the EIR was inadequate.

CEQA review slows down projects and costs money. If you "streamline" the process, you make life easier for developers. But there's a hefty price to pay -- because while Sup. Scott Wiener talks about homeowners fixing rotting handrails, very few CEQA suits or appeals are ever filed over that kind of thing. Yeah, there are exceptions; year, one lone bike-hater slowed down the city's bicycle plan. Yeah, NIMBYs will sometimes slow down affordable housing projects.

But most major CEQA lawsuits and appeals are over big projects, ones that, in San Francisco, tend to slide through the official approval process no matter how horrible they are. Mayors of this city for most of the past half-century have liked developers; mayors appoint the majority of the Planning Commission, and they appoint commissioners who like developers. There's big money in San Francisco real-estate development, and the savvy builders spread enough of it around that they typically get their way.

CEQA gives the rest of us a way to fight back. Most of the time, it doesn't work: A CEQA appeal, for example, didn't stop the atrocious 8 Washington project. CEQA hasn't stopped developers from building about 50 million square feet of office space in the city since the 1970s. CEQA didn't stop that hideous Rincon Hill tower. Oh, and it hasn't stopped a single affordable housing project.

In a city where developers rule and bad decisions are made all the time, for all the wrong reasons, you have to look at tradeoffs. Is it worth accepting a delay in the bike plan and the Dolores Park plan because lone nuts are using CEQA -- if that means we can force big commerical projects to mitigate some of the damage their doing? CEQA isn't perfect, but "reforming" it to make appeals harder is, on balance, a bad idea.

Have at me, trolls. I am a backward-thinking luddite who hates success and never wants anything in the city to change. I am an old curmudgeon. I am whatever you come up with next.

Or maybe I've just lived here long enough to see that much of what passes for "progress" in this town does more damage than good.