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Why Changing CEQA Won’t Make Big Changes for UC Berkeley

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California’s landmark 1970 Preservation of Beauty Act has a long history of failure.

Although the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has made it more difficult to drain wetlands, pave nature reserves, and build oil refineries, it has also hindered the construction of bike lanes. affordable housing and public transport.

When CEQA recently threatened thousands of young Californians with admission to the state’s flagship public university, lawmakers had had enough. They introduced a student enrollment bill, passed it unanimously, and Governor Gavin Newsom signed it into law within four days.

“Admit these students to UC Berkeley now,” says Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles). tweeted after the vote. “Students are not pollutants!”

But despite the outrage over the Berkeley incident and regular high-profile examples of the law blocking green projects, few believe lawmakers will use the Berkeley case as an excuse for an overhaul. Too many interests – including environmentalists, labor unions and neighborhood groups – support CEQA, and any attempt to bring about lasting change faces backlash and failure.

It is more likely that lawmakers will continue to poke holes in the law, only exempting or overriding CEQA in certain situations, while broader concerns about the law’s development impact remain unchallenged.

“Politicians will always solve a problem as narrowly as possible, especially when it’s politically difficult to solve a problem broadly,” said Bill Fulton, director of the Children’s Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and editor of California Planning & Development Report. “The idea of ​​confining the California dream to the students at UC Berkeley resonated well, where constraining the California dream by limiting the amount of housing is not.”

At first glance, CEQA is a simple law. It requires developers to study a project’s environmental impact on the surrounding community and take steps to reduce or eliminate it. But the law can lead to thousands of pages of studies examining everything from soil samples to traffic to shadows a project might cast. Successful court challenges can set a project back to square one. The whole process, lawsuit or not, can sometimes take years to resolve.

Over time, legislators and jurisprudence have Circumstances touched by CEQA – including now student enrollment.

In the case of UC Berkeley, a neighborhood group sued the university’s long-term expansion plans, saying the school’s growth needed to be analyzed for its impact on traffic, noise, property prices and the natural environment. In August, a judge ruled the group was right, ordered the school to conduct a stricter, more time-consuming review, and meanwhile froze their enrollment.

As the clock ticked, university officials panicked last month, claiming they would have to cut the incoming fall 2022 course by a third and lose $57 million in tuition revenue while the state specifically boosted funding so more students could go to Berkeley.

The law, passed this week, gave the university an additional 18 months to complete its environmental review. Lawmakers said they must act quickly to avoid would-be students becoming victims.

Some argued the situation showed the law was going too far.

“Let us adopt this measure today. Let’s give these students an education,” said Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) during the debate on the amendment. “But let’s not think for a minute that this mess was somehow an anomaly. When it comes to CEQA, this UC Berkeley train wreck was no mistake. It’s a feature.”

Wiener said that CEQA’s shortcomings have become more apparent over time as California’s environmental challenges have changed. The law was born when environmental protection was focused Stopping projects that had been ruthlessly run across communities. But today, tackling issues like climate change and clean air requires building new clean energy sources and mass transit infrastructure, making CEQA difficult.

“In many ways, CEQA is tragically the law that swallowed California,” he said.

Another concern is that the law can be used by competing companies to block projects.

A billionaire developer in Newport Beach is suing a proposed 300-unit apartment building next to its office complex under CEQA. Mall owners have filed lawsuits to try to stop the construction of other malls nearby. And about 15 years ago, when a gas station in San Jose wanted to add a few more pumps, a competing gas station across the street turned to a CEQA lawsuit in an attempt to halt the expansion.

Among the most staunch supporters of the law is the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, a coalition representing construction workers. The group’s leaders acknowledged that unions have threatened to press CEQA demands if they negotiate higher wages and other benefits, noting that they are not the only group doing so under the law.

As problems have worsened over the years, legislatures have made exceptions or narrow legislative changes, as they have done for UC Berkeley with varying degrees of success. Mega-projects like sports stadiums and tech company headquarters have gotten breaks from lengthy CEQA litigation deadlines. Legislators have had to pass legislation to ensure that cycle path projects are not embroiled in lengthy environmental assessments.

However, some environmental groups claim that those who want to change the CEQA trumpet occasionally more headline-worthy incidents than the actual impact of the law.

A recent report by UC Berkeley law professors for the California Air Resources Board noticed, that less than 3% of housing projects faced litigation in many major cities across the state over a three-year period. Instead, the researchers concluded that many of the delays in housing construction were due to local land-use rules.

Groups in the Inland Empire and Central Valley have used requirements under CEQA to block or Enforce changes to warehouse projects that threaten to further pollute neighborhoods already facing poor air quality.

“I can’t tell you how often CEQA is the only thing standing in the way of a community getting a really terrible project,” said David Pettit, a senior counsel for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I don’t want that taken away.”

Some lawmakers have blamed UC Berkeley for what happened, and not CEQA. Rep. Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), one of the architects of the spin-off for the university, said the school should have analyzed its population growth and appealed the court ruling in time to meet its legal requirements.

“I don’t see that as a flaw in the process,” Ting said. “I really see it as … lawyers who really didn’t quite do their job for the university.”

So far, there hasn’t been an organized attempt to use the situation at Berkeley to push for a CEQA overhaul, instead some lawmakers are trying to create another exemption.

Under a proposal by Wiener, on-campus student and faculty housing for California’s public colleges and universities would not need to be subjected to CEQA’s environmental assessments. The State Building & Construction Trades Council of California supports the law, Senate Bill 886, because it includes guarantees for union-level wage rates and hiring provisions for projects that would benefit of the law, said the senator.

Wiener wants to reform CEQA to make it easier to build climate-friendly projects and stop further emission-raising projects. But he said the politics for it was “incredibly complex”.

In the meantime, he’s come to terms with future examples of CEQA blocking things that many people wouldn’t expect an environmental law to stop.

“Could there be another outrage at UC Berkeley next year?” Wiener said. “Absolutely.”

Times contributors Colleen Shalby and Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.

https://www.latimes.com/homeless-housing/story/2022-03-19/california-ceqa-quick-fix-uc-berkeley Why Changing CEQA Won’t Make Big Changes for UC Berkeley

Dais Johnston

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