CEQA Streamlining for Infill: Right Idea, Flawed Approach

For years, CEQA has been California’s most powerful tool to evaluate the impacts of proposed development projects.  But it’s fair to say that CEQA has too often been misused to block infill, affordable, and transit-oriented development.

A new effort is underway to change that –- with mixed results.  Today marked the end of the public comment period on a new proposal to streamline CEQA for infill projects.  The proposal, penned by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, would allow infill projects that meet certain criteria to do a streamlined CEQA process.  It represents the implementation of SB 226, a law signed by Governor Brown last year.  The law itself established a basic framework for eligibility – and punted to OPR to flesh out the details.

OPR’s basic framework is sound: it uses VMT (vehicle miles traveled) as the metric for defining infill.  We think this is a good idea, because VMT is an excellent proxy for all sorts of things we care about: air quality, walkability, proximity to job centers and transit.  It recognizes that neighborhoods with low VMT (75% or less of the regional average) are the places we should be encouraging new development,  and it grants automatic eligibility to projects in those places.

However, the guidelines go off the rails in two key ways: first, they make it too easy for sprawl projects in the far-flung reaches to get streamlining; and second, they fail to consider other important criteria such as affordability and localized air pollution along freeways and major roadways.

As they’re currently written, the guidelines would allow projects in “red zones” (areas with the highest VMT – usually remote, semi-rural places) to be eligible for CEQA streamlining if they simply comply with California’s green building standards, known as CALGreen.  Now, I’m all for green building, but I’m NOT for green sprawl.  There’s just no reason we should incentivize projects in far-flung locales that dramatically increase driving, simply because they use green building methods.

The other major problem is that the guidelines make little or no mention of key health and equity issues such as affordable housing and the health risks associated with putting more people near highways and major roadways that have high levels of air pollution.  We must encourage growth in our existing cities – AND we must ensure that we’re not displacing existing residents or putting new ones at risk.

OPR has another five months to revise the guidelines before their final adoption.  Let’s encourage them to get it right.

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