CEQA reform battle sparks welcome changes even before final compromise

The Planning Department recently made it easier for activists to track development projects.

UPDATED When Sup. Scott Wiener last year introduced legislation that would limit people’s ability to appeal development projects by reforming the California Environmental Quality Act’s local procedures, progressives and neighborhood activists rose up in strong opposition. But now, with that measure and a competing alternative up for approval by the Board of Supervisors tomorrow (Tues/16), there is a compromise in the offing that all sides may see as an improvement on the status quo, particularly given administrative changes that the Planning Department has made along the way.

“We made a series of amendments in April that addressed almost all the concerns raised by the neighborhood activists,” said Judson True, the top aide to Board President David Chiu, who has once again taken the lead role in crafting a compromise on controversial legislation

Final details of the deal are still being worked out, but sources on both sides say there is an agreement on the broad outlines of a true compromise. It would accomplish Wiener’s main goal of limiting the current ability of project opponents to file a CEQA appeal at any time while also improving the public notification process.

“It’s still pretty fluid now, but we’re working to get to a consensus measure, we hope,” True told us.

Wiener has always emphasized that his legislation applies only to relatively small projects, those that are “categorically exempt” under CEQA from having to do detailed environmental studies. And he said the compromises now being developed appear to meet his initial goals.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that it will be approved,” Wiener told us, adding that, “If this turns out to be a kumbaya moment, that will show the legislative process works.” [UPDATE: The compromise legislation was unanimously approved by the board.]

One byproduct of that process was recent changes on the Planning Department’s website that make it much easier for activists to track the status of projects -- with a new map showing projects that have been granted CEQA exemptions that would move forward unless challenged -- which activists requested during the Land Use Committee hearings on this legislation.

“We heard from members of the public that our existing posting process was cumbersome. It was also time-consuming for staff. We decided to revamp the system, using technology we’ve developed in recent years. By converting the checklist into electronic format and having it searchable by location, it’ll be easier for the public to search for a particular project and more efficient for staff to process,” Planning Department spokesperson Joanna Linsangan told us.

True said the hearings on the legislation have helped to illuminate problems that could be addressed administratively: “There’s been a real push from supervisors and the Planning Department itself to improve noticing.”

Eric Brooks, who has been working with the 42 groups that coalesced to oppose Wiener’s legislation -- including environmentalists, neighborhood groups, labor, and historic preservationists -- said ensuring proper noticing was half the battle. He gave credit to Sup. Jane Kim for resisting the Wiener legislation and working with activists to put forward a competing measure, sowing the seeds for the Chiu compromise.

“This was  a real community process and Jane Kim needs to be lauded for taking part in this,” Brooks said, although he later added, “Whatever happens with this, David Chiu owns it because he’s put himself in the middle of this.”

One key piece of the puzzle that might not be resolved tomorrow is with what has always been the biggest concern for activists, which is how the legislation limits appeals to a project’s initial approval. “We knew that it would be way too early and it cuts off our ability to negotiate with developers,” Brooks said.

For complicated legal reasons, it was difficult to build into this legislation a process for activists to challenge a project that changes after its initial approval, so Kim has introduced trailing legislation that would do so (which is set to be heard Wednesday by the Historic Preservation Commission and Thursday by the Planning Commission).

It would allow activists to appeal changes to a project that they find environmentally significant, even if city staff doesn’t (or, in planning parlance, to appeal the environmental review officer’s categorical exemption determination -- to that same officer).

“If the environmental review officer has to suffer the hearing if she makes a bad call, she will make fewer bad calls,” Brooks said. “And if we don’t change the environmental review officers’ mind, we’ll be able to take it to court.”