Putting CEQA to work for Sustainable Communities

August 7, 2013

By Autumn Bernstein
ClimatePlan Director

The ongoing debate over changes to the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, has been marked by polarization, exasperation and, more often than not, mutually-assured destruction. Overreaching efforts to gut CEQA’s core environmental protections are met by equally fierce crusades to prevent any significant changes to the law. Every year this political drama plays out in the theater of the Capitol, and every year we see little movement on CEQA in either direction.

This is overwhelmingly a good thing, as CEQA is California’s premiere law to protect the environment and ensure public participation in decisions which shape our communities. In many ways, CEQA continues to do exactly what it is supposed to do: ensure a thorough and transparent examination of the impacts of a project before it is approved.

However, there’s a growing recognition that current CEQA practice in urban environments may ignore or undermine important sustainability goals, such as reducing the number of automobile trips and protecting communities from displacement. Yet these considerations have been largely absent from public discussions about so-called CEQA ‘reform’ and many thoughtful observers have largely stayed on the sidelines of this thorny and contentious debate.

We just couldn’t help ourselves though.

Several months ago, ClimatePlan teamed up with the Planning and Conservation League and Greenbelt Alliance to pull together a dialogue of diverse stakeholders – everyone from infill builders to environmental justice champions – to discuss the relationship between CEQA and infill development. With expert facilitation by CEQA attorneys Bill Yeates and Rick Frank, we convened a small group of thought leaders to share, listen and learn from one another.

Over the course of four half-day meetings we found a surprising amount of consensus. So much consensus, in fact, that we decided to share our findings with leaders in Sacramento.

In late July, we sent a letter to Governor Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Steinberg, and Assembly Speaker Perez which outlined our consensus recommendations for CEQA. The Legislature is currently debating changes to CEQA in the context of SB 731 (Steinberg), and many of our recommendations could be incorporated into that bill.

Our key recommendations include:

Parking is NOT an Environmental Impact: CEQA’s analysis of parking can have unintended consequences. Even though parking isn’t mentioned in the CEQA statute or guidelines, some CEQA practitioners and judges still consider the reduction of parking availability an environmental impact, when in fact a surplus of free parking can actually harm the environment by encouraging automobile trips. CEQA should expressly eliminate parking as an environmental impact.

CEQA should take a Multimodal Approach to Transportation Analysis: CEQA’s analysis of transportation impacts tends to focus exclusively on automobile drivers. This is because CEQA relies on Level of Service (LOS), which measures traffic volumes and speeds, as the primary metric for transportation impacts. This can result in mitigations which actually undermine environmental objectives, such as widening roadways or lowering the density of new development. Conversely, projects that enhance transportation choices, such as bus and bike improvements, may be subject to CEQA challenges simply because they impact automobile LOS.

Instead of the outdated LOS metric, CEQA should require a multi-modal approach to transportation analysis. This approach should focus on protecting communities from the environmental and public health impacts of automobile trips, such as air quality, pedestrian safety, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Prioritize Strategies that Reduce Demand for Driving: CEQA should prioritize mitigation measures that reduce the demand for driving, such as free transit passes, car-sharing stations, improving pedestrian and bike facilities and limiting the availability of free parking. Less desirable strategies that increase vehicle trips or VMT (such as road widening or increased parking) should be pursued only when trip reduction strategies have been exhausted or are not feasible.

CEQA Should Address Economic Displacement: New development can increase land values and displace low-income residents, resulting in significant environmental, social, and health equity consequences. However, these impacts are not yet codified under CEQA. We believe these impacts should be incorporated into the CEQA framework, providing direction to jurisdictions on how to evaluate potential economic displacement of vulnerable populations, and adopt policies to prevent and mitigate those impacts. Such mitigation measures could include rent stabilization ordinances, inclusionary zoning, or condominium conversion restrictions.

Yesterday, we were excited to see that new amendments to SB 731 included one of our recommendations, the elimination of parking as a significant impact! We hope that SB 731 will continue to evolve (for the better) over the final weeks of the legislative session.  We’re not the only ones suggesting amendments, and some very destructive proposals are still lurking out there, so keep an eye on this one.  SB 731 goes to the Assembly Local Government Committee on August 14th.

For more information contact Autumn.

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