SF lawmakers’ move to reform CEQA narrows, is still divided 

The gap narrowed Monday  between dueling proposals to change rules for environmental appeals of construction projects, but weighty issues remain unresolved.

For weeks now, a debate has raged at the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee over how to reform the appeals process under the California Environmental Quality Act, also known as CEQA.

Under the state law, projects that would have a significant impact on the environment must undergo extensive environmental analysis to determine how to mitigate those impacts. Smaller projects can do other mitigation work or receive an exemption. The CEQA decisions are appealable to the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Scott Wiener proposed an appeals reform months ago and Supervisor Jane Kim has a more recent counter proposal. The two supervisors sit on the committee and have been hashing out their legislation with board President David Chiu arbitrating. Monday was the third hearing on the legislation.

While Chiu offered more amendments to Wiener’s legislation in an effort to reach a consensus that could then go to the full board for a vote, the larger debates remain unresolved. They include when the clock should start ticking for someone to file a CEQA appeal — either at the project’s first approval or second approval. For some advocates, waiting until second approval is pivotal.

“The thing that keeps that developer at the negotiating table is the CEQA appeal,” said Eric Brooks, a community advocate engaged in the negotiations. “That’s just reality. We need that.”

Also, debate continues on how The City would determine whether changes to a project are significant enough to allow for an opportunity to appeal.

With sides agreeing that there need to be clear appeal deadlines, public notification has become a focus. Kim wants a robust email subscription notification system for CEQA-related projects, something the Planning Department has said it is unable to accomplish with its current technology.

Kim is also working with the Council of Community Housing Organizations, a group of nonprofit affordable housing developers, to include in the reform a requirement that the Planning Department issue an initial CEQA evaluation of affordable housing projects within 60 days. Bicycle and pedestrian safety projects could also be included in that proposal.

On Monday, Chiu said he was opposed to Wiener’s provision that would allow city agencies to issue approvals while an appeal for the project was pending. Chiu said that would “continue to create more momentum for a project” when “problematic elements” of a project should be resolved first, which could help inform those decisions.

The committee debate continues next Monday, even though Kim said she plans to introduce a new version of her proposed legislation a day later on May 14.

Chiu said he doesn’t want the debate to drag on.

“I want to push all parties … to try and resolve these issues as soon as we can,” he said.  

Efforts to reform the CEQA appeals process by past Board of Supervisors members have failed three times.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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