Why changing the CEQA for UC Berkeley won’t lead to big changes

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

Although California’s Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, has made it more difficult to drain wetlands, pave nature preserves, and build oil refineries, it has also hampered the construction of bike paths, affordable housing and public transportation.

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

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

Yet despite the outrage surrounding the Berkeley incident and the regular, high-profile examples of the law blocking eco-friendly projects, few think lawmakers will use the Berkeley affair as an excuse for an overhaul. Too many interests – including environmentalists, unions and neighborhood groups – support the CEQA, and any attempt to make solid changes threatens backsliding and failure.

What is more likely is that lawmakers will continue to poke holes in the law, exempting or nullifying the CEQA only in certain situations, while leaving unaddressed more widespread concerns about the law’s effects on the development.

“Politicians will always solve a problem as narrowly as possible, especially when it’s politically difficult to solve a large-scale problem,” said Bill Fulton, director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and California publisher. Planning & Development Report. “The idea of ​​limiting the California dream to UC Berkeley students resonated as an issue where somehow limiting the California dream by limiting the number of housing units doesn’t.”

At first sight, the CEQA is a simple law. It requires developers to study the environmental effects of a project on the surrounding community and take steps to reduce or eliminate them. But the law can result in thousands of pages of studies examining everything from soil samples to traffic to the shadows a project might cast. Successful legal challenges can send a project back to square one. The whole process, trial or not, can sometimes take years to resolve.

Over time, legislators and court decisions have expanded the circumstances affected by CEQA – now including student enrolment.

In the UC Berkeley case, a neighborhood group pursued the university’s long-term expansion plans, saying the school’s growth needed to be analyzed because of its effects on traffic, noise, housing prices and the natural environment. In August, a judge ruled the group was right, ordered the school to conduct a deeper and longer review, and froze its enrollment in the interim.

As time is running out, university officials panicked last month, saying they would have to cut its incoming fall 2022 class by a third and lose $57 million in tuition revenue at a time when the The state increased funding specifically so more students could go to Berkeley.

Legislation passed this week gave the university an additional 18 months to complete its environmental review. Lawmakers said they needed to act quickly to avoid turning potential students into victims.

Some argued that the situation revealed that the law went too far.

“Let’s take this step today. Let’s give these students an education,” Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said during the change debate. “But let’s not think for a minute that this mess was somehow an anomaly. As far as CEQA goes, that UC Berkeley train wreck was not a bug. It is a feature.

Wiener said CEQA’s flaws have become more apparent over time as California’s environmental challenges have changed. The law was born when environmentalism focused on stopping projects that had trampled on communities. But today, solving problems such as climate change and air quality requires the construction of new clean energy sources and public transport infrastructure, which the CEQA makes more difficult.

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

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

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

Among the strongest supporters of the law is the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, a labor group representing construction workers. Leaders of the group acknowledged that unions have threatened to make CEQA claims when negotiating higher pay and other benefits, noting that they are not the only group that treats the law this way.

As the problems have escalated over the years, lawmakers have created narrow exemptions or modifications to the law, like what they did for UC Berkeley with varying degrees of success. Megaprojects such as sports stadiums and tech company headquarters have gotten breaks from lengthy CEQA litigation delays. Lawmakers had to pass laws to ensure that bike lane projects would not be entangled in lengthy environmental reviews.

Some environmental groups, however, argue that those who want to change the CEQA occasionally mislead headline-grabbing incidents rather than the actual effects of the law.

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

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

“I can’t tell you how many times the only thing that stops a community from getting a really terrible project is the CEQA,” said David Pettit, senior counsel for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I don’t want it taken away from me.”

Some lawmakers blamed UC Berkeley for what happened rather than CEQA. Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), one of the architects of the university’s split, says the school should have analyzed its population growth and appealed the court’s decision more quickly so that it can meet its requirements under the law.

“I don’t see that as a flaw in the process,” Ting said. “I really see him as… lawyers who really haven’t really done their job for the university.”

So far, no organized effort has emerged to use Berkeley’s situation to push for an overhaul of the CEQA, but instead some lawmakers are seeking to create another exemption.

Under a proposal by Wiener, student and faculty housing on campuses at public colleges and universities in California would not have to undergo CEQA environmental reviews. The State Building & Construction Trades Council of California supports the legislation, Senate Bill 886, as it includes guarantees for union-level wage rates and hiring provisions on projects that would benefit of the law, the senator said.

Wiener would like to reform the CEQA to make it easier to build climate-friendly projects while continuing to stop those that increase emissions. But he said the policy of doing so is “incredibly complex”.

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

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

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

Los Angeles Times

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