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Sonoma Index-Tribune Editorial: Is county ‘housing crisis’ caused by environmental-review abuse? 5/15/15

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May 15  |  Editorials, News  |   user

“If you build it they will come” is the famous line from “Field of Dreams.”

But if Kevin Costner had been restricted by CEQA requirements, the 1989 let’s-build-a-ballpark-in-the-cornfield movie would’ve been a different story altogether.

CEQA, or the California Environmental Quality Act, turned out to be the special guest at last week’s North Bay Housing Summit, where more than 300 stakeholders gathered at the Petaluma Sheraton for the North Bay Leadership Council’s event – put together in response to what NBLC officials have called a housing shortage crisis.

CEQA has emerged in recent years as something of a whipping boy for critics who say the law’s strict environmental review process stymies even environmentally sensitive development – in that legal challenges to CEQA-required environmental impact reports are frequently used to tie up housing proposals in the courts. It’s a move, critics say, less about genuine environmental concerns than simply intended to drain developers of time and money – and ultimately the desire – to see such projects through.

Like it or not, the “CEQA move” works. Sonoma Raceway’s recent bid to adjust its use permit drove barely a single lap before venue officials cooled their engines in the face of daunting legal challenges.

And many longtime champions of CEQA are now coming around to the idea that all too often its environmental protection ethos is being used as a property values protection ethos – by those “conservationists” most interested in conserving their quality of life in and around their property limits.

The California Environment Quality Act was groundbreaking state legislation when it passed in 1970, a mere eight years after Rachel Carson’s game-changing book “Silent Spring” brought the conservation movement to the mainstream. CEQA’s mandate was simple: any proposed project that could alter its surrounding environment would require an independent report on the project’s plan for mitigating that environmental footprint.

But over the course of the four decades since its enactment, a flurry of other environmental safeguards have come down the federal and state legislation pipe – many for good reason, but a mishmash nonetheless – making it relatively simple to challenge developments via claims of flawed EIRs. Concern over using CEQA to limit development – as opposed to ensuring development was eco-friendly, the law’s original intention – was pretty much a non-issue in the conservation-minded North Bay, until it became clear it was severely hampering another, perhaps more pressing, issue for local progressives: affordable housing.

At the Housing Summit, in fact, Sonoma County 2nd District Supervisor David Rabbitt called CEQA “one of the most abused acts” to come out of Sacramento.

“The idea of CEQA is a great one – in which people should be made aware of environmental impacts from any development project,” Rabbitt said. “But there is no such thing as a project that will have no footprint and CEQA should not be a tool to stop all projects from moving forward.”

Susan Gorin, 1st District Supe, stopped short of pinning it all on CEQA challenges, saying the county can’t “build its way” out of an affordable-housing shortage. “We need to elevate wages,” Gorin said.

She’s certainly right about that – and the county may be addressing that soon when it considers a $15 an hour living wage ordinance. But that doesn’t mean CEQA couldn’t use an update by the state Legislature. One idea to discourage frivolous CEQA lawsuits would be to allow defendants to recover attorney fees from plaintiffs in cases of particularly egregious challenges. (Currently only plaintiffs can recover attorney fees.)

Another proposal that deserves attention is to limit the standing of such lawsuits to litigation focused on environmental and planning law.

An Environmental Quality Act with teeth is a must, and there are ways to make CEQA stronger without gutting it.

Because if things stay as they are, to borrow another phrase from the Costner movie, Sonoma may never “go the distance” it needs to emerge from its “housing crisis.”

Full Editorial Here

Santa Rosa Press Democrat Opinion Editorial, Pete Parkinson & John Lowry: Close to Home: Facing our pressing housing needs 4/29/15

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April 30  |  News, News Articles  |   user

The two of us have spent several decades working on housing issues from different perspectives — one as a local government planning director and the other as a nonprofit housing builder. Despite our different perspectives, common themes have emerged, and we see several specific actions that can be taken to improve housing affordability.

Cities and counties can help “front-load” the planning and permitting process by adopting neighborhood-level development plans in areas suitable for increased housing density and infill development. Known as specific plans, these long-range planning tools are more than a zoning map. A good specific plan spells out design requirements for buildings, amenities and infrastructure, shows how improvements will be financed and includes an upfront environmental clearance under the California Environmental Quality Act. This planning increases predictability for future housing providers and reduces the time and cost of the permitting process. Santa Rosa’s specific plan efforts are a good example. The state Legislature and governor can help jump-start these planning efforts by increasing funding for long range planning.

The state Legislature can provide immediate help by improving California’s environmental review process. A recent study showed that nearly 60 percent of CEQA lawsuits were filed against infill development projects. The costs of CEQA litigation — in time and money — can be devastating for an affordable housing project. We believe the CEQA process can be streamlined without compromising environmental quality. The existing CEQA exemptions for infill housing projects can be expanded. Reforms also are needed to reduce the ability of housing opponents to raise last-minute CEQA issues as a delay tactic.

A candid conversation about development impact fees is overdue. In the nearly 40 years since Proposition 13, impact fees have become an important funding source for public infrastructure. They are also the most regressive revenue source in our history. In many places, all units, from mansions to studio apartments, pay almost the same fees. While reducing fees on all housing, like Santa Rosa has done recently with its sewer and water fees, would be beneficial for housing supply, the fee burden is greatest for smaller units. We should move to a fee based on living area for higher density, low-income affordable housing.

We have seen a dramatic increase in regulatory complexity and the cost of compliance. New regulations affecting land development and building construction are added every year. These regulations originate from a worthwhile purpose, whether it’s health and safety, energy conservation, environmental protection or accessibility and equity. But compliance comes at a cost that is seldom, if ever, acknowledged at the state level. We believe that the cost of compliance should be considered for all new regulations, including the relationship between benefits and costs.While public funding, loan guarantees and tax breaks have a long history in providing low income housing and home ownership opportunities, we are in a time where even greater public commitment is needed.

There is resistance to this policy direction, and the question of why government needs to commit more public money to housing is a legitimate one. One answer is that government has restricted housing supply to accomplish other public policy goals and has used new housing to fund everything from public infrastructure to saving endangered species and reducing global warming; and the bill has come due. Another answer is that while housing supply must be increased, Sonoma County, as with most coastal areas, will never build its way out of the affordability crisis. Incomes of lower income people have not kept up with actual building costs. If wage stagnation is a long-term trend, the most effective way to prevent it from reducing more people to poverty, will be to make sure that we have decent housing for all.

Pete Parkinson is former director of Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department. John Lowry is former executive director of Santa Rosa-based Burbank Housing Corp.

Full Opinion Editorial

San Jose Mercury News Editorial: Suspend CEQA for water recycling in San Jose and Silicon Valley 4/28/15

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April 30  |  Editorials, News  |   user

San Jose and Santa Clara pay a fortune to purify wastewater — really purify it — and then spill most of it away.

We can’t afford to do that any more. Water is too precious, and the alternatives, like desalination, are even more expensive and potentially polluting. Silicon Valley needs a system to re-use treated water that exceeds state standards for drinking. The technology is proven. Orange County residents have been drinking recycled water for seven years.

A coalition including San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Matthews, Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino and Santa Clara Valley Water District President Gary Kremen are leading the charge for an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to help speed construction of an $800 million comprehensive purification system so recycled water can be percolated back into the ground for general use.

If the exemption is granted, it easily could shave two years and $3 million in costs from what otherwise is expected to be a 10-year project. Two years will be critical if what we now see as a devastating drought proves to be the new normal for California’s climate.

The state should grant the exemption. As Guardino argues, if it can exempt a planned NFL stadium near Los Angeles from CEQA, surely it can exempt a project to deal with what Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency.

Environmentalists are lining up to oppose the CEQA exemption, even though they say they favor using recycled water. They want to preserve the detailed review of construction plans for the plant and pipe systems. Given the urgency of shoring up our water supply, it’s a weak argument.

The plan eventually could supply 20 percent of Santa Clara County’s water needs. Today only 5 percent of treated water is recycled, and only for landscaping, so it requires a whole separate, multimillion dollar system of distinguishable “purple pipe” to distribute it.

Public officials will need to combat the yuck factor in drinking recycled water: Yes, it comes from toilets, showers, dishwashers and the like, along with surface runoff into storm sewers. But by the time it goes through purification and then seeps from percolation ponds through the soil to replenish groundwater, it will be every bit as pure as the water we now drink. Remember, percolation ponds are home to fish, birds and all kinds of, um, polluting creatures now. Soil is an effective purifier.

We like to see Silicon Valley lead in innovation, but it’s following in this case. Not only Orange County but El Paso, Texas, is using or planning to use recycled water. Some East Bay communities that proposed it several years ago — when it still used to rain — are reviving proposals.

Valley leaders are showing courage to take this on. The Legislature and the governor need to help by granting a CEQA exemption.

Full Editorial Here

In Case You Missed It: San Francisco Chronicle Editorial: “Of all the well-documented abuses of the California Environmental Quality Act, this one may be the most absurd” 4/13/15

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April 13  |  Editorials, News  |   user

In an editorial today, the San Francisco Chronicle again called for reform of the California Environmental Quality Act, noting it can be manipulated and abused for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment.

Case in point: A CEQA lawsuit filed by anti-abortion activists against a Planned Parenthood clinic in South San Francisco. The CEQA lawsuit alleges city planners had not sufficiently taken into account “environmental impacts,” specifically the noise and traffic disruptions that would be caused by the activists OWN protests.

Calling this “absurd” the Chronicle said “We can now add women’s health services to the toll of public goods that have been stymied by the California Legislature’s refusal to stand up to the interest groups who seem to think CEQA should remain carved in stone.”

Read the full editorial, “Antiabortion group exploiting environmental law to halt clinic”

Below are key excerpts,

  • “Of all the well-documented abuses of the California Environmental Quality Act, this one may be the most absurd.”
  • “This nonsense must stop. The 40-year-old CEQA has been a critical tool for preserving our natural resources, but it also has been exploited by interests whose motives have nothing to do with the environment, such as businesses that stifle would-be competitors or unions looking for leverage.”
  • “The plaintiffs are not going away easily, despite a tentative ruling against the lawsuit by San Mateo Superior Court Judge Marie Weiner in July 2014. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood is being forced to spend money on legal fees that could have gone into health care.”
  • “We can now add women’s health services to the toll of public goods that have been stymied by the California Legislature’s refusal to stand up to the interest groups who seem to think CEQA should remain carved in stone.”

CEQA Misuse Case Study: South San Francisco Planned Parenthood

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April 6  |  Case Studies  |   user

Protestors Use CEQA in Attempt to Stop South San Francisco Planned Parenthood Women’s Clinic – And They Use Their Own Protests As the CEQA Complaint!

In 2013 Planned Parenthood received approval from the South San Francisco City Council to renovate an existing building to house a new health clinic in South San Francisco to meet the medical needs of women in the area, including STD testing, breast cancer screening and other reproductive care.

A group opposed to abortion services filed a lawsuit a few months later alleging that the clinic was not fully vetted under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), even though the plan was to rehabilitate an existing building that was currently vacant. They specifically cited noise and traffic problems that the anti-abortion group’s own protests would cause, saying Planned Parenthood failed to account for that noise in their environmental review.

The anti-abortion group was able to use CEQA, an environmental protection law, to halt the clinic project based on the argument that the demonstrations this same group planned to do might cause traffic and noise. 

That lawsuit was filed in 2013 and a judge tentatively ruled that there were ZERO environmental impacts from protesting that triggered CEQA review. Thus, the judge ruled in favor of Planned Parenthood in July of last year, but the project continues to be held up because the final ruling is pending.

Planned Parenthood was still forced to spend time and money to defend themselves in a legal battle for a year, and likely longer if the group appeals, over a lawsuit that had nothing to do with the environment. The cost of litigation could have been used to upgrade and outfit the building to make it into a much-needed clinic.

Unfortunately the clinic still has not been built almost a year after the ruling and two years after its approval, leaving many low income women without access to medical services they desperately need.

Once the final ruling is made the anti-abortion group will likely appeal, which will further delay this needed women’s clinic.

COST OF CEQA MISUSE: 

  • Frivolous CEQA lawsuit delays a women’s health clinic needed for low income women.
  • CEQA lawsuit was based on the petitioners own demonstrations.
  • Nearly two years after approval, the clinic is still not open.

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CEQA Misuse Case Study: Palmdale Rail Car Plant

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March 30  |  Case Studies  |   user

Palmdale Rail Car Manufacturing Plant ‘Derailed’ Using CEQA for Non-Environmental Reasons

In an effort to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Los Angeles County has been working since 2012 to expand their public transportation capabilities by extending the Expo Light Rail line from Culver City to Santa Monica.  This line will reduce travel time to Downtown LA for commuters to 46 minutes, as well as take cars off of the I-10 during peak traffic hours in order to ease congestion and shorten drive times. This project is slated to be completed in summer of 2015 and operational early 2016.

Kinkisharyo, a Japanese railcar manufacturer based in El Segundo, has had a contract with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority since 2012 to build railcars for the Expo line extension.  Their proposed new manufacturing plant, approved by the Palmdale city Planning Commission, would be used to build 97 of the contracted 175 rail cars for Metro as well as any orders from other U.S. customers.  The level of GHG emissions of a Kinkisharyo rail car are about 1/9 of the GHG emissions given off by a car.

This $50 million dollar manufacturing investment would provide 250 well-paid, manufacturing jobs to the Antelope Valley region with an unemployment rate ranging from 9.7%- 11.1%, well above the statewide average of 7.3%.  This job number doesn’t include the work created for the construction industry that the building process of the manufacturing plant would bring. Even given all of the environmental and economic benefits this manufacturing site would bring, the company decided not to build the new plant in Palmdale.

Groups attempting to force the rail car manufacturer to use an easier process for unions to organize their workforce filed a CEQA lawsuit as leverage in an attempt to put pressure on the company to give in to their demands. 

Fearing the uncertainty and delays from the CEQA litigation, the Kinkisharyo Company decided to expand their operations in existing facilities in LA rather than build the new manufacturing plant in Palmdale. The company also agreed to a deal with the union to allow them to organize using sign-ups.  This arrangement cost hundreds of construction jobs and robbed the Antelope Valley of desperately needed employment.

Regardless of one’s perspective on unions – and we happen to believe unions serve a purpose and can provide great value to workers – we think everyone can agree that this is a wholly inappropriate use of CEQA, an environmental planning law.

COST OF CEQA MISUSE

  • Hundreds of construction jobs and material sales
  • Loss of $50 million investment in a new, permanent manufacturing plant

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In Case You Missed It: California Legislative Analyst Report Says California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is a Major Reason for High Housing Costs in California. 3/17/15

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March 17  |  News, Press Releases  |   user

LAO Report Recommends “Major Changes” to CEQA to Address California’s High Housing Costs

SACRAMENTO—In a new report released today, California High Housing Costs Causes & Consequences, the California Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) cites the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as a major impediment to building enough housing in California. The LAO says CEQA is a factor in California’s lack of housing supply, which leads to higher housing costs that burden working families and low income residents, and serve as a drag on our economy.

The LAO goes on to recommend, among other policy reforms, “major changes” to CEQA in order “to address California’s high housing costs.”

Today’s LAO report is further evidence that California needs to modernize CEQA in order to preserve the law’s original intent of environmental protection, while stamping out unnecessary abuses that have little to do with the environment.  

Key Excerpts from the Report:

  • “…CEQA’s complicated procedural requirements give development opponents significant opportunities to continue challenging housing projects after local governments have approved them.” Pg. 15
  • “Our review of CEQA documents submitted to the state by California’s ten largest cites between 2004-2013 indicates that local agencies took, on average, around two and a half years to approve housing projects that required an EIR. Pg. 18
  • “The CEQA process also, in some cases, results in developers reducing the size and scope of a project in response to concerns discovered during the review process.” Pg. 18
  • “If California continues on its current path, the state’s housing costs will remain high and likely will continue to grow faster than the nation’s. This, in turn, will place substantial burdens on Californians— requiring them to spend more on housing, take on more debt, commute further to work, and live in crowded conditions. Growing housing costs also will place a drag on the state’s economy.” Pg. 34
  • “Given the magnitude of the problem, the Legislature would need to take a comprehensive approach that addresses the problem from multiple angles and reexamines major policies. Major changes to local government land use authority, local finance, CEQA, and other major polices would be necessary to address California’s high housing costs.” Pg. 35

About the CEQA Working Group: The CEQA Working Group is a broad coalition of local government, affordable housing, business, agriculture, education and other organizations advocating for moderate reforms to CEQA that will preserve its original intent – environmental protection and public disclosure – while eliminating some of the misuses of CEQA that hurt job creation, community renewal and our environment.

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LA Daily News Opinion Editorial, LA EDC and SCAG: Jobs are lost as CEQA goes off the rails: Guest commentary 10/28/14

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October 28  |  News, News Articles  |   user

The California Environmental Quality Act was established to protect the environment and ensure that development does the same. So how is it that a project to build hundreds of “green” public transit rail cars in Palmdale was killed by a CEQA lawsuit that has nothing to do with the environment?

The time is long past due to reform CEQA to preserve the law’s original intent, while stamping out these types of abuses that eliminate jobs our region desperately needs.

Kinkisharyo International LLC is set to build hundreds of environmentally friendly rail cars for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but it recently pulled the plug on the $50 million, 400,000-square-foot permanent manufacturing facility planned for the city of Palmdale that would have employed more than 250 manufacturing workers in this economically depressed area.

According to news reports, groups trying to force the rail car manufacturer to unionize its workforce filed a CEQA lawsuit in an attempt to coerce the company to give in to its demands. Fearing the uncertainty and delays from the CEQA litigation, Kinkisharyo decided to look to another state for its manufacturing facility.

Unions serve an important purpose and provide great value to workers, but we think everyone can agree that this is a wholly inappropriate use of CEQA, a law adopted to protect environmental resources and public health.

This flagrant abuse of CEQA couldn’t come at a worse time. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the city of Palmdale has an unemployment rate of 9.7 percent (as of September). In neighboring cities such as Lancaster, unemployment is 11.1 percent — far greater than the statewide average of 7.3 percent.

The region, too, is suffering worse than it has in years. According to a recent Southern California Association of Governments study, the share of residents in the six-county SCAG region living below the federal poverty level increased from 13 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2012. Today, the region has 3.2 million residents in poverty, including one in four children. We must do something to address this crisis.

Instead, abuses of CEQA are taking us backward.

The rail car project would have brought hundreds of middle-class jobs to the region, all while promoting environmentally friendly public transit that will help get people get out of their cars and meet California’s emission-reduction goals. SCAG’s most recent Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy places heavy emphasis on public transit, including rail, and as we begin work on our updated RTP/SCS, we’re keenly aware of the value of projects that support that goal.

Sadly, what we’ve seen in Palmdale is all too common — CEQA used as a blunt tool to strong-arm economic concessions out of a developer or to stop projects for non-environmental reasons. Throughout the state, CEQA lawsuits have gridlocked affordable housing, schools, renewable energy projects, hospitals and many other local environmentally desirable projects we need.

Lawmakers must take a serious look at CEQA to preserve the law’s original intent while stopping clear abuses of the law.

Achieving these goals will not be easy, but with participation from diverse stakeholders and commitment from Gov. Brown and legislators on both sides of the aisle, meaningful CEQA reform can and should be accomplished this year.

We urge legislators to make this a top priority for 2015.

William Allen is president and CEO of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. Hasan Ikhrata is executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments.

Full Opinion Editorial

In Case You Missed It: Los Angeles Newspaper Group Editorial: “Loss of Tesla factory should put a charge in CEQA reform”, 9/5/14

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September 9  |  News, Press Releases  |   user

SACRAMENTO – Last week the nine Southern California newspapers that make up the Los Angeles Newspaper Group editorialized their disappointment that California legislators ended yet another legislative year without accomplishing “meaningful changes in the California Environmental Quality Act.”

The editorial emphasized that the California legislature needs to use 2015 to pass “CEQA reform [that] would not eliminate environmental protections but would simplify and remove duplications, restrict last-minute challenges and clarify its requirements.” 

Below are excerpts from the editorial:

  • “CEQA’s purpose is noble…Too often, though, it is exploited by local governments, landowners, business rivals and labor unions to block projects they dislike or to add to their negotiating leverage.”
  • “Done right, CEQA reform would not eliminate environmental protections but would simplify and remove duplications, restrict last-minute challenges and clarify its requirements.”
  • “This would limit — preferably eliminate — the need for exemptions like the ones state officials have handed to projects like the bullet train and sports stadiums and arenas from Los Angeles to Sacramento.”
  • Lawmakers “failed completely on CEQA reform — again. Let’s make sure our lawmakers don’t forget the lessons of the Tesla mess when they set their agenda for 2015.”

About the CEQA Working Group:

The CEQA Working Group is a broad coalition representing business, labor, schools, hospitals, clean tech, transit, affordable housing and other organizations that are pushing for moderate reforms to CEQA that will preserve its original intent – environmental protection and public disclosure – while eliminating some of the misuses of CEQA that hurt job creation, community renewal and our environment. Follow us on Twitter: @FixCEQA or online at www.CEQAWorkingGroup.com.

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Governor Brown / Neel Kashkari Agree on One Thing: CEQA Reform is Needed

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September 5  |  News, Press Releases  |   user

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 5, 2014                               

CONTACT: Kathy Fairbanks, 916.443.0872, kfairbanks@bcfpublicaffairs.com

SACRAMENTO — Though they didn’t agree on much during last night’s gubernatorial debate, both candidates did agree on one thing: Governor Jerry Brown and Neel Kashkari acknowledged the need to reform California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). See 27:10 mark of last night’s debate.

“There is near universal agreement that CEQA is a good law that needs to be modernized,” said Carl Guardino, President & CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and member of the CEQA Working Group. “Legislative changes are needed to update CEQA so that we maintain its original intent – environmental protection – while stamping out abuses of the law that are hindering vital job creation and environmentally friendly projects. We look forward to working with lawmakers in 2015 to accomplish this important priority for California.”

About the CEQA Working Group: The CEQA Working Group is a broad coalition of local government, affordable housing, business, agriculture, education and other organizations advocating for moderate reforms to CEQA that will preserve its original intent – environmental protection and public disclosure – while eliminating some of the misuses of CEQA that hurt job creation, community renewal and our environment.

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