The California Environmental Quality Act is a good law too often used in bad ways. At its root, the law typically known as CEQA requires that state and local governments study the impacts of projects to mitigate — when possible — their negative effects.
But while CEQA-type laws around the nation typically only come into play in the case of genuine environmental objections to a project, the law in California is far too often co-opted by anyone with a “Not-in-my-back-yard”-style objection.
In San Francisco, the problem is compounded by The City’s municipal code and charter. In just about every other city in the state, small changes to buildings that require a project permit can be routinely approved by a city employee. But under San Francisco’s rules, that same building project must go before a board or commission, making the project subject to the rules of CEQA, which allow anyone to appeal a project for virtually any reason.
Under these unique rules, just about any change to any property in San Francisco can be dragged out or killed by abusing CEQA. To add to this misery, there is no structure or process by which CEQA appeals are handled in San Francisco. Rather, each appeal is dealt with individually on a muddled timeline that lacks transparency.
To streamline this messy process, Supervisor Scott Wiener has proposed a reform of how CEQA appeals would be handled forwarding the future. Under his proposal, more outreach would need to be done early on before projects are approved. Then, once a project received its approval, the clock would start ticking for CEQA appeals to be filed. Opponents would have just 20 days in which to file their appeal.
Currently, it takes city lawyers to figure out whether appellants have filed their CEQA appeals in a timely manner. Wiener’s proposed reform would make the time period clear for everyone and minimize disputes about the process of appeals.
Wiener is not attempting to change CEQA, nor could he do so if he wanted. As a state law, only the Legislature can pass legislation amending it, and the governor would certainly have to be on board as well. In fact, the law itself does need to be revised to limit the ability of NIMBYs to delay meritorious projects, but that is another fight altogether.
San Francisco is in the midst of a building boom, with hundreds more projects still moving through the planning process toward approval. Wiener’s proposal would not strip away the appeals process necessary to change or stop harmful projects. Rather it would change or stop harmful appeals from killing good projects.
Supervisor Wiener has done the heavy lifting to conceive of a process under which CEQA compliance could work more efficiently in San Francisco. The supervisor has held community meetings with numerous stakeholders and gathered feedback before several city commissions. Stemming from the feedback that he received during those meetings and hearings, he has made 34 amendments to his original proposal. As his legislation moves to the Board of Supervisors, we support his underlying goal.