• Sat. Oct 1st, 2022

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California Lawmakers Have Solved Berkeley’s Problem. Is CEQA Next?

But think from a statewide perspective about the average environmental footprint of a person in California. Almost certainly, someone in Berkeley — a city with great public transit, in a temperate climate with minimal heating and cooling costs — is going to have less of an environmental footprint than if they were living elsewhere in California.

If U.C. Berkeley welcomes more students to campus or if the city of Berkeley approves a housing project or revises its ordinances or general plan in a way that allows more people to live in Berkeley, that’s an environmental win, from a statewide perspective. But CEQA pretends that if those people weren’t living in Berkeley they wouldn’t be living on planet Earth, where they’ll be driving or making trash or noise or starting wildfires or bulldozing habitat.

So what should be the next step?

The Legislature should revisit CEQA. Or the governor’s Office of Planning and Research, which writes CEQA guidelines, should revisit what counts as an environmental impact, particularly in urbanized areas. This would make sense especially if the governor is serious about facilitating housing development in downtown locations, because the state’s environmental laws are thwarting those very projects.

The state also needs to make it possible for supporters of a project to sue a city for requiring excessive environmental review or taking too long to certify a CEQA study, just as opponents may challenge the city for doing too little. This is a special problem for housing.

The state’s Housing Accountability Act prevents cities from denying or downsizing most projects that comply with applicable standards. But it’s not clear whether this law or any other provides a remedy if a city tries to ice a project with make-work demands for additional “environmental” studies, rather than denying it outright.

What should be dropped from CEQA?

Local impacts associated with population growth in urban areas should not be CEQA issues. Most of the things identified in the Berkeley case — noise, traffic, trash — these are all things city elected officials have an incentive to take care of. We don’t need a statewide environmental law for that.

As for the price of housing, that’s a problem local officials don’t handle well because the burden of higher prices falls mostly on people who don’t yet live — and vote — in the city. But the solution to high housing prices and displacement is not to fashion CEQA into an even more formidable barrier to development.