Forty-three years ago, California adopted one of the nation’s most foresighted environmental protection laws, the California Environmental Quality Act, which is known as CEQA. The law encourages our elected officials to “look before they leap” and make decisions based on an objective analysis of a proposed project’s impacts on the environment.
CEQA has been an important and effective protection in reducing impacts to the environment, maintaining neighborhood integrity, reducing transportation congestion and safeguarding historic landmarks. But for the past few years, CEQA has been under full-scale attack from big business interests making overblown claims that CEQA is the reason for a slowdown in construction.
In Sacramento, a coalition of environmental and labor groups have thus far successfully opposed proposals to eviscerate this law that helps assure environmental quality for present and future generations. Last week, Robbie Hunter, the president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, wrote:
“To achieve their ends, the enemies of CEQA have widely circulated their myths: that CEQA causes unreasonable delays, that it somehow destroys jobs, that it allows frivolous lawsuits. None of that is true ... CEQA has been accused of stopping construction projects in large numbers by the threat of a lawsuit. Of the 1.1 million civil lawsuits filed each year in California, CEQA accounts for less than 200, or 0.02 percent … CEQA has been accused of hindering infill. But an EPA nationwide study of infill projects from 2000 through 2010 in large metropolitan areas, found that three of the top four cities for infill development are in California. Yet another untruth. CEQA has protected our health without harming our economy. We cannot afford more blind deregulation.”
Unfortunately, here in San Francisco, Supervisor Scott Wiener has promulgated these myths and proposed amendments to The City’s planning code that would seriously weaken CEQA protections and reduce citizen participation in critical land-use decisions. Wiener’s measure contains a veritable minefield of provisions to protect the interests of big developers at our community’s expense, including changes that would drastically reduce public-noticing requirements, make appeals harder to file, and deny the public’s right to argue an appeal of the Planning Commission’s CEQA rulings before the full Board of Supervisors.
The Wiener amendments have met with stiff resistance from a vast array of organizations, generating letters of opposition from the Planning and Conservation League, the Sierra Club, San Francisco Architectural Heritage, San Francisco Tomorrow and many others. A broad coalition interested in making CEQA’s procedures more fair, sensible and efficient, without weakening its core principles and protections, has formed to urge a community-based alternative to Wiener’s overreaching proposal.
Supervisor Jane Kim recently proposed an alternative piece of legislation to make the CEQA process more fair and efficient for developers, while carefully protecting the public’s right to participate in identifying and resolving environmental problems caused by development projects and government decisions.
Supervisors need to reject Wiener’s legislation and pursue Kim’s alternative if they truly wish to improve our local CEQA process while protecting the environment and the public interest.
Rebecca Evans is the chairwoman of the Sierra Club San Francisco Group. Quentin L. Kopp is a former state senator and a former member of the Board of Supervisors.