This op-ed was originally published in the November 19, 2014 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.
By Curt Johansen and Jeremy Madsen
For more than 40 years, California’s signature environmental law—the California Environmental Quality Act—has helped safeguard our natural lands and protect community health. Now it’s time to modernize some elements of the law to strengthen its effectiveness and make our communities even better places to live. Fortunately, the Brown administration is following through with some long-overdue fixes that deserve broad support.
California has an opportunity to lead the country through land-use policy reforms that reduce pollution and traffic and improve our quality of life by speeding approval of sorely needed infill projects and putting the brakes on sprawl.
Critics of CEQA have protested that the environmental review the law requires for major projects often adds unnecessary costs, time and uncertainty, while unfairly empowering project opponents. As representatives of nonprofit organizations committed to responsible, sustainable infill growth in our cities and downtowns, we see the continuing value of CEQA for giving the public a voice in project analysis, requiring more careful decision making, and encouraging project developers to mitigate avoidable impacts where feasible.
But we also recognize that CEQA can unduly penalize urban-oriented projects over outlying, auto-centric projects when it comes to evaluating impacts on traffic—an analysis that too often provides project opponents with leverage to defeat projects or scale back their environmentally friendly elements. Currently, an infill project in downtown San Francisco, for example, might be subjected to protracted litigation and concessions to widen streets and accommodate even more traffic, despite its optimal location in a walkable, bikeable area with transit close by. Meanwhile, a new subdivision on open space or farmland that generates long-distance car trips, air pollution and crushing regional traffic can get a free pass, all because traffic in the immediate area isn’t affected.
This perverse result has to change, and the Brown administration is taking action. Following a 2013 state law, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research has developed an alternative way to address traffic effects. Project developers must now look at how a project will affect the overall driving miles as measured throughout the metropolitan region. So downtown-oriented projects, where most people can walk, take transit or bike (modes of transport that are good for the environment and relieve traffic regionwide), would not trigger lengthy CEQA review on this particular issue. Outlying projects, however, must account for the regional traffic they generate and mitigate where feasible. Mitigation could include anything from free transit passes for residents to adding more jobs and retail opportunities on-site so residents don’t have to drive long distances to access them.
Unfortunately, some CEQA critics are still not satisfied with this sensible reform, arguing that the Brown administration should abandon this regional traffic metric in order to avoid injecting more “uncertainty” into CEQA. Some even want the administration to exceed the bounds of state law by essentially removing transportation analysis from CEQA—a step that the Legislature never contemplated in passing the 2013 law.
As leading developers and advocates of infill projects throughout California, we recognize that this proposed reform will remove one of the most common roadblocks used to stop smart city-centered development, while requiring outlying projects to account for the regional traffic they cause.
California has an opportunity to lead the country through land-use policy reforms that reduce pollution and traffic and improve our quality of life by speeding approval of sorely needed infill projects and putting the brakes on sprawl. We urge Gov. Jerry Brown to stay the course and resist the exhortations from critics with a larger ax to grind about CEQA. Together, we can help improve our state’s premier environmental law to create more sustainable, convenient and thriving neighborhoods, while protecting our farms and natural lands for all Californians.
Curt Johansen is president of the Council of Infill Builders, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation of real estate professionals committed to improving California through infill development. Jeremy Madsen is executive director of Greenbelt Alliance.