Time to Act on CEQA Reform

San Francisco’s planning approvals process is notoriously difficult, often taking months – and sometimes a decade or more – to approve a project. The city’s lengthy process can add significantly to a developer’s costs. These costs are impacting both the pace of development and the type of projects that get built in the city.

While several factors can impact the length of time it takes to get a project approved, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is often a major obstacle. CEQA was intended to ensure analysis and disclosure of environmental impacts of proposed projects prior to construction. Unfortunately, it is frequently misused by anti-growth and Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) activists to extract concessions and kill projects for reasons that have little to do with the environment.

One needs only to look at the lengthy list of worthwhile projects that have been delayed by CEQA in our city to understand the pressing need for reform. The economy-boosting Treasure Island and Parkmerced redevelopments are just two recent examples. And it’s not just large-scale development that is being held hostage. Even small, community projects like the North Beach Library and Lafayette Park are being held up by CEQA.

Governor Jerry Brown and Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg have publicly proclaimed CEQA reform as a priority. The Chamber applauds their efforts and is working with a broad coalition of business and civic groups from across the state to urge reforms that preserve CEQA’s intent, while preventing the abuses that are jeopardizing job creation and economic growth.

While statewide CEQA reform will take time, San Francisco has the opportunity to drastically improve its planning and approvals process today. Supervisor Scott Wiener has put forth sensible legislation to streamline the city’s interpretation of CEQA and the approvals process for local development. Specifically, this proposal increases public notice requirements at the start of the process, establishes more uniform protocols for certain types of CEQA review documents, and shortens the window for appealing a project’s approval to up to 20 days after the first set of approvals is granted.

These practical reforms will go a long way in creating a more clear, open and predictable process to vet proposed development in San Francisco and resolve CEQA disputes in a reasonable timeframe. Shaped through a lengthy public process and numerous hearings, Supervisor Wiener’s legislation has the full support of the Chamber and many transit, bike, affordable housing and good government organizations.

Opponents are concerned that the proposed changes will “weaken CEQA” and complicate state-mandated Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs). These claims are simply untrue.  The legislation does not amend CEQA in any way – only the State Legislature can do that. Additionally, the legislation does not affect EIRs, which are also governed by state law and our city’s planning department.

An opportunity to improve San Francisco’s cumbersome planning and approvals process is now in front of us. The Chamber joins the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) and many others in urging the Board of Supervisors to approve Supervisor Wiener’s legislation.

Bob Linscheid is President & CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce