Appeals are great when it comes to public projects -- but there's got to be some limits
OPINION In San Francisco, a single person can file an 11th-hour appeal under the California Environmental Quality Act to stop a park, library, transit, or affordable housing project that has broad public support. It's actually worse: that single person can file the appeal long after the project has been approved and even after it goes into construction. When the appeal is filed, the project must stop construction — creating huge costs — until the Board of Supervisors gets around to ruling on the appeal.
This is government dysfunction at its worst, and it needs to be reformed. Supervisor Scott Wiener is sponsoring legislation to do just that: to allow full public participation and challenges to projects while implementing the common-sense rule that for any project, there must be an end to the process and a clear deadline for filing CEQA appeals. Public participation in decision-making is important, but at some point, the decision is made, the process comes to a conclusion, and the project begins. Open-ended CEQA appeals with no deadlines — San Francisco's current system — are anti-democratic.
Passed 40 years ago, CEQA is an important state law that requires environmental analysis before approving projects. CEQA has helped stop or modify environmentally problematic projects in our state. Pretty much every project in San Francisco — whether a mega-development or a smaller project, such as a homeowner replacing a rotted-out porch handrail, a playground or library renovation, an affordable housing project, or a bike or pedestrian-safety upgrade — must undergo CEQA evaluation. These myriad CEQA evaluations are then appealable to the Board of Supervisors. Yes, if you are replacing that rotted out handrail or working with your neighbors to renovate your local playground, those projects can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors under CEQA if a single person doesn't like what you're doing.
We support CEQA and support the right to appeal projects. What we cannot support is having no firm deadline to file those appeals. We've seen excellent projects, with broad public support, get delayed and have dramatically increased costs because of our bad process. A small group abused CEQA to fight the North Beach Library for years. After the Dolores Park renovation underwent dozens of community meetings and attained broad community support, a single person appealed the project, arguing that the dog areas of the park would lead to childhood obesity. San Francisco's bike plan was delayed for years, costing millions of tax dollars.
By setting a clear deadline to file CEQA appeals — 30 days after the project is approved — and by improving notice to the public, Supervisor Wiener's legislation will provide opponents every opportunity to challenge a project, but they will have to do so before the project goes into construction. That is a common sense rule, and as a result, the legislation has garnered broad support from affordable housing builders, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Walk SF (our pedestrian safety advocacy group), SPUR, labor unions, and neighborhood associations and leaders.
Supervisor Jane Kim has introduced an alternative to Supervisor Wiener's legislation. Supervisor Kim's legislation would make our dysfunctional process even worse. It would allow for multiple CEQA appeals of projects instead of just one and would continue to allow CEQA appeals long after projects are approved and even after they go into construction.
It's time to bring rationality to our CEQA appeal process. Supervisor Wiener's CEQA appeal legislation is the right approach and deserves to be passed.
Scott Wiener is a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Pat Scott is Executive Director of Booker T. Washington Community Service Center in the Western Addition, which provides services and affordable housing to families and youth.