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Friday, April 12, 2013

Is CEQA Bad For Bike Projects?

Posted By on Fri, Apr 12, 2013 at 8:29 AM

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I wade into the ongoing debate over CEQA, with much unease.

For starters, the minute that I start to explain that CEQA stands for the California Environmental Quality Act and that San Francisco City Hall's administration of that particular law is the subject of a long-running and heated political discussion, particularly over the question of which municipal body gets to adjudicate which appeal and in regard to the timing of the petition process and ... never mind, you've probably already hit the back button.

For those of you still with me, here's the other reason I worry about writing this: Those who follow this issue seem to follow it very closely and with a level of vociferous conviction that makes my equivocating self a little nervous, because as a cyclist and a citizen, I can sympathize with both sides of this argument.

To back up, CEQA is the 1970 state environmental protection law which says that any project built, funded, or approved by a government body in California needs to pass ecological muster. Whether it's major city development projects, state high-speed railway plans or that tool shed you want to build in your backyard, the relevant agency has to ask whether "there are feasible alternatives or feasible mitigation measures available which would substantially lessen the significant environmental effects" before signing off on anything.

Key to all of this is that the law also allows for us lowly plebs to engage in that review process.

If a project has been approved (or exempted from evaluation completely) without the proper once-over, the public has the right to challenge that review. So far, this is all irrefutably good stuff.

Where things start to feel a little shakier is when you get into the actual mechanics of the law as applied -- how San Francisco administers that review process and how it processes those public petitions. Last October, Supervisor Scott Wiener put forward a piece of legislation that would, in the supervisor's words, streamline the City's "opaque and unpredictable" review process that often results in "dramatic delays and cost escalations."

Cyclists in San Francisco are all about dramatic delays. No doubt, it is a testament to the strange politics of this issue that one of the biggest supporters of what's being called an attack on the state's principal environmental protection law are the folks who want everyone to get around on bikes: the Bicycle Coalition.

Of course, the Coalition's beef with the local CEQA process dates back to 2005 when, after the City was all set to move forward with its new city-wide Bicycle Plan, the proposal was stopped by CEQA appeal by the misanthropically tenacious Rob Anderson. The City, Anderson argued, had not properly vetted the bike plan's impact on transit and overall traffic congestion. With the Bicycle Plan lodged in bureaucratic limbo for the next four years, the Coalition has ever since called for a process that is "more transparent and predictable" and therefore "less likely to unnecessarily stall important bike and pedestrian safety improvement projects," they wrote to me in an email.

Wiener's solution: Once a project is given a green stamp of approval by the Planning Department, a would-be challenger only has 30 days to file an appeal. In other words, an appeal can't be filed on a project after the backhoe's been rented. Also, in those cases where the Board has to approve a municipal project (say, a new bike path), under the proposed law, a majority "Aye" vote would count as both an approval of the project itself and as an affirmation of its environmental soundness.

The stated goal of Wiener's bill, then, is to limit redundant appeals and restrict the ability of obstructionists to repeatedly obstruct. In the last few weeks, other examples of lone, disgruntled NIMBYs tying up perfectly good and green projects under the guise of environmental concern have made the rounds in the media to highlight the need for reform.

But according to the San Francisco Sierra Club's Sue Vaughan, whom I spoke to yesterday afternoon, the Coalition (and any cyclists standing behind Wiener's bill), are taking a myopic view.

"There are developers out there who are going to push this through to bypass the environmental analysis process and that is not good for anyone," she said. In other words, weakening the appeals process is a double-edged sword. Limit the ability to hold up bike path construction and you limit the ability to hold up ill-conceived developments across the city.

"I'm a bicyclist. I don't have a car. I'm a member of the Coalition," said Vaughan. "But from my point of view, it's good to fully assess any plan."

Certainly, I do understand the hesitancy to tinker with the administration of a long established environmental law. And while I don't like the fact that someone can hold the city's bike lanes hostage for almost half a decade, I also recognize that the next time a delay tactic is employed against a major project, it might be against one that I'm less partial to.

That said, I am not so convinced that Wiener's reform would lead to a pandemic of skyscraper rush jobs. To the extent that the proposed legislation restricts the public input process, San Francisco's application of the law would still allow for more flexibility than most other cities in the state.

But more broadly, bike and pedestrian oriented infrastructure projects -- projects that make streets safer, that make it more convenient for people to get around without the use of a car, and which, of course, make for a more environmentally-friendly neighborhood or city (like this one) -- are worth prioritizing.

Supervisor Wiener's proposal may yet see more revisions (it has already been amended some 40 times) and Supervisor Jane Kim's alternative CEQA bill has yet to be unveiled. But, to state the obvious, if and when CEQA process reform passes this year, part of the goal should be to ensure that that process lives up to the spirit of the law itself.

Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.

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