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Pollution & HealthCEQA, California’s Housing Crisis & the Little Hoover Commission

CEQA, California’s Housing Crisis & the Little Hoover Commission

CEQA, California’s Housing Crisis & the Little Hoover Commission

State Watchdog Agency’s Scheduled CEQA Hearings Could Prompt Major Changes to California’s Most Essential Environmental Law

Starting today, California’s “Little Hoover Commission” will convene a series of three public hearings to contemplate how well–or poorly–the state’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is currently working.  A special focus of the Commission’s deliberations will probably be whether and to what extent California’s most significant and overarching environmental law is impeding efforts by the Legislature and Governor Newsom to handle the state’s chronic and well-documented housing crisis.

The Little Hoover Commission’s upcoming CEQA hearings–together with recent events which have prompted them–could quite possibly result in the primary systematic revisions to CEQA in many years.  Whether that’s a very good or bad thing will probably be a subject of sturdy public debate in the approaching months.

The Little Hoover Commission is an independent California oversight agency that was created in 1962.  Its mission is to research state government operations and policy and, through reports and legislative proposals, make recommendations to the Governor and Legislature “to advertise economy, efficiency and improved service in state operations.”  Assiduously nonpartisan and apolitical, the Little Hoover Commission has garnered widespread respect and praise over its 61-year history from across the political spectrum.

CEQA, in contrast, has been a controversial law almost from the time it was enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by then-Governor Ronald Reagan 53 years ago.  California’s “look before you leap” law requires that state and native governments prepare an environmental evaluation prematurely of any proposed project they undertake or approve that would trigger a considerable hostile change to California’s physical environment.

The law was a mere 4 pages long when it was created in 1970.  But CEQA has grown exponentially since then–180 pages and counting–and generated implementing regulations approaching 300 pages in length.  CEQA imposes key responsibilities on all three branches of state government.  It employs a small army of personal and government planners and attorneys.  And it is a subject of ongoing, often-fierce debate between its environmental proponents and plenty of private sector critics.

Over the past half-century, the California Legislature has resisted making any major, programmatic changes to CEQA.  As an alternative–and until quite recently–state legislators have simply taken a piecemeal approach to CEQA “reform” by exempting certain favored projects on a case-by-case basis.  (Two distinguished, sports-related examples are the Legislature’s exemption of Los Angeles’ preparations for and hosting of the 1984 Summer Olympic games and, more recently, CEQA exemptions for quite a lot of latest sports arenas and stadiums throughout California.)

Then along got here California’s housing crisis.

Over the past twenty years, California’s shortage of obtainable housing–particularly low- and moderately-priced housing–has steadily worsened.  It has helped trigger a concomitant homelessness crisis, and has resulted in the very best housing costs in your complete nation.

Over the past decade, California legislators have debated and enacted a succession of increasingly-stringent state housing reforms designed to advertise needed latest housing–focused especially on the needs of low and moderate-income residents.  Frustrated by local governments’ perceived failure to take meaningful steps to handle California’s housing crisis, the Legislature has passed–and Governors Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom have signed–a series of recent laws that restrict the ability of cities and counties to disapprove such housing projects.

Enter CEQA.

For numerous years now, NIMBY groups have seized upon CEQA as their legal tool of selection to fend off proposed latest housing projects of their communities.  At times they accomplish that with the covert or overt support of local government officials who’re reluctant to alienate the constituents who’ve voted them into office.

And numerous these CEQA lawsuits have proven successful.  The City of Berkeley has change into Ground Zero in recent CEQA-vs.-new housing legal and political battles: last yr, Berkeley residents relied on CEQA to successfully oppose U.C. Berkeley’s plan to construct critically-needed latest student housing on or adjoining to campus.  They convinced a trial court to cap freshman admissions to U.C. Berkeley as a treatment for what the judge deemed to be U.C.’s deficient environmental evaluation of the project under CEQA.  (The Legislature promptly exempted the University of California’s admissions process from CEQA’s mandates.)  Earlier this month, an appellate court found the University’s plan to construct urgently-needed student housing on a portion of Berkeley’s iconic “People’s Park” site–which has devolved from the enduring center of the 1960’s Free Speech Movement right into a crime-plagued homeless encampment–to be deficient under CEQA.  The justices halted the project from going forward pending a do-over of the project’s environmental evaluation.  That prompted an offended blast from the normally buttoned-down Governor Newsom, who charged that CEQA was being misused by opponents of recent student housing.

Several other well-publicized legal battles from across the state over latest housing projects opposed on CEQA grounds have similarly generated substantial publicity and heated public controversy.

While there was longstanding, generalized debate between CEQA’s supporters and detractors, the perception in some quarters that CEQA is being weaponized to defeat much-needed California housing developments has each ratcheted up that debate and focused it directly on CEQA’s application to California housing projects.

Which brings us back to the Little Hoover Commission and its upcoming hearings on potential “reforms” to CEQA.  In recent months, numerous California’s political leaders have urged the Legislature to fundamentally revise CEQA in face of the housing controversy, and suggested that the Commission examine the difficulty as a part of that process.

In announcing its three scheduled hearings on CEQA (scheduled for March sixteenth, April thirteenth and April twenty seventh), the Little Hoover Commission states on its website that it’ll “evaluate the character and extent of CEQA’s impact on housing, land use, and other issues.  The Commission may even explore the current state of the CEQA process and consider whether changes to CEQA or the CEQA process could also be merited…”

To ensure, recent developments strongly suggest that the connection between CEQA and proposed latest housing projects–especially those in already urbanized areas of California with existing infrastructure and mass transit resources–must be higher reconciled.  And this is just not a policy debate that could be resolved simply through a series of “one-off,” legislatively-devised CEQA exemptions.  A more comprehensive review and set of potential reforms is required.

Nevertheless, the Legislature and Governor Newsom mustn’t view this current “grinding of CEQA/housing gears” as a possibility to radically revise–and even eviscerate–California’s landmark environmental law.  Quite a few academic studies have documented the various ways through which CEQA has served to guard and preserve California’s environment, while promoting a healthier population and state economy over the past half-century.

State leaders would as a substitute do well to await the conclusion of the Little Hoover Commission’s upcoming hearings and the issuance of its report on potential CEQA reforms before taking legislative motion.   A legislative scalpel is required here, not application of a sledgehammer to CEQA.


California, California Environmental Quality Act, California Legislature, CEQA, Governor Gavin Newsom, housing, Little Hoover Commission


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