Yesterday I was reading through the material on Field + Pond and one of the things that struck me was how neighbors were suing under CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) to stop a development they do not want. The court struck down most of the suit, but upheld just enough to force the event center owners to have to go through an expensive CEQA process and do an EIR (Environmental Impact Report) rather than an MND (Mitigated Negative Impact).
“The Court found that the Project may have a significant environmental impact on tricolored blackbird, valley elderberry longhorn beetle, and golden eagle. The remaining claims were denied,” the county wrote in their Notice of Preparation.
In short, the court found that there might be a significant environmental effect that will have absolutely no impact on the neighbors and yet now these folks are being forced to do an EIR, declare the impact, and mitigate it – at great cost.
No wonder CEQA gets such a bad rap. I would consider myself an environmentalist, but watching the abuse of CEQA not only here but on several projects in Davis – it is turning me off to CEQA.
I am even more concerned with the use of CEQA against Lincoln40 and Nishi because those are two student housing projects in areas where we should build student housing. By housing a combined 3000 students, we are taking students from troubling situations and having to commute and drive to campus, and putting them in locations where they can bike and walk. That is a net benefit to the environment.
I have cited the stats time and time again. Students who live within a mile of campus – over 90 percent of them get to school through means other than driving their cars. When students live over five miles from campus, they drive and most of them drive alone.
I find it ironic then that California’s signature environmental law is being used (or abused) to stop an environmentally advantageous project. Never mind that these are highly sustainable projects.
In the coming days, possibly within a week, the campus is going to release a survey that will give us a much clearer picture of the number of homeless and housing insecure students there. Spoiler alert: while I cannot divulge the figures, let us just say they are MUCH higher than even the very highest previous estimates and the numbers for both should shock and outrage this community.
And yet here we are, with local residents using CEQA in a way that will increase the costs of housing to students, delay the implementation of these projects by a year or two, and force many students to continue to live homeless when they do not have to.
This is unconscionable.
Last year, the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, no bastion of anti-environmental conservatism, hammered industry people for using CEQA to stop a $5 billion plan that would have modernized ground transportation services to LAX (Los Angeles International Airport).
This passage rings true: “There’s a perennial fight over California’s signature environmental law, which was enacted as a way to inform and empower the public by requiring developers to disclose the environmental effects of their projects in detailed reports and to mitigate any harm they may cause.”
They write: “While CEQA is a vital tool that has made countless projects better since its inception, it is also too easily used to stop projects for reasons that have nothing to do with environmental protection.”
Here is the problem: “Organized labor groups have used the threat of CEQA lawsuits to force developers to hire unionized labor. Companies have filed CEQA lawsuits to block competing businesses. Homeowner groups have used CEQA to stop construction or shrink the size of apartment complexes in the middle of cities.”
Here is Davis, and we are using CEQA to stop highly environmentally friendly projects. We are using CEQA to prevent the city from building housing near campus.
The irony is that the delays in these projects will not only increase student suffering in the short term – they will increase housing costs down the line, they will increase the cost of doing business in Davis which will ironically lead to less in the way of amenities, and they will at least in the short term increase traffic, VMT (vehicle miles traveled), and the resultant GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.
In other words, the use of CEQA to stop projects will do more harm than good.
The thing is – not one project locally has been or will be stopped because of one of these lawsuits. The only thing these things accomplish is delay. The other thing is everyone has learned that they cannot simply reach a settlement agreement, because that simply incentivizes more suits. The only way to stop lawsuits is to take them to court and prevail.
But the Field + Pond suit shows another problem – you have to do an EIR. While it was probably reasonable to believe they could do a mitigated negative declaration on a small project like that, the result was the court found just enough cause to force them to do the EIR anyway.
That is why Lincoln40 did an EIR even though they were not required to do so. As Robb Davis pointed out at the time, that came at great cost and meant that benefits to the community were not realized because money that could have gone to a variety of amenities went to the EIR instead.
They got sued anyway.
This fall, thousands of students will not have housing. As they struggle to find places to live, and seek shelter in cars, on living room couches or in libraries, they need to remember that people living in the comfort of their own homes are holding up housing that could have gone on line within two years and now will be delayed for an unknown number of months.
—David M. Greenwald reporting