The state Senate held a joint informational hearing last month that, on the surface, looked to be a step forward for those who believe the California Environmental Quality Act needs reform, if not a top-to-bottom overhaul.
But apparently the hearing was anything but an effort to fix the law that bears the greatest responsibility for California’s crisis-level housing shortage.
The March 12 hearing — “Just the Facts: An Evidence-Based Look at CEQA Streamlining and CEQA’s Role in Development” — has been characterized as “little publicized” session with an agenda entirely opposite of what one would expect, given the title. According to the California Chamber of Commerce, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Santa Barbara Democrat, said the hearing’s purpose was “to talk about the mythology that CEQA stops development, and debunk it as far as it can be debunked.”
“From there,” Adam Regele reports for the California Chamber of Commerce, “the panel of pre-selected academics went on to downplay CEQA’s role in raising housing costs in California.”
A staffer who didn’t want to be identified said the purpose of the hearing was “to show that CEQA on the whole was fine because the overwhelming majority of projects that are subject to CEQA review are never the subject of litigation.”
So, no effort to honestly assess CEQA’s effects? Just a pep rally for the law? The unnamed staffer said it “definitely” had that feel.
Despite the cheerleading, CEQA’s impact on housing is real and adverse. Consider the following points made by a few credible observers:
- “CEQA is one of the well-recognized culprits in California’s housing supply and affordability crisis. The need to update CEQA litigation rules to end non-environmental abuse of this important California law is stronger than ever.” — Jennifer Hernandez, the head of Holland & Knight’s West Coast land use and environment group.
- “CEQA, the state’s premier environmental law, has to go – roots and all.” — Timothy Coyle, former director of California’s Department of Housing and Community Development.
- “What’s preventing new housing development? The usual suspects in California: litigation, regulation, and underinvestment in infrastructure. And the notorious offender: the private right of action in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which provides an easy litigation path to almost anyone who wants to block a development project.” — Loren Kaye, Hoover Institution.
- “CEQA’s complicated procedural requirements give development opponents significant opportunities to continue challenging housing projects after local governments have approved them.” — California Legislative Analyst’s Office.
- “The CEQA process also, in some cases, results in developers reducing the size and scope of a project in response to concerns discovered during the review process.” — California Legislative Analyst’s Office.
- “Communities of color have become collateral damage in the environmental community’s war on climate change. . . . Eighty percent of lawsuits that used CEQA to stop housing developments, school developments, had nothing to do with the environment.” — John C. Gamboa, California Community Builders
- Reforming CEQA is “the Lord’s work.” — former Gov. Jerry Brown.
PRI board member Daniel Kolkey suggests lawmakers start CEQA reforms by: eliminating the automatic right of appeal in meritless cases, which “could cut by half the length and cost of CEQA litigation”; preventing ambushes, so there is adequate time to “address the issue without starting part of the process all over”; and stopping the courts “from overturning project approvals where the omitted information” in an environmental impact report “would likely not have affected the project’s approval and did not significantly affect the general public’s ability to evaluate the project’s overall impacts.”
If lawmakers insist on protecting CEQA as if it were Holy Writ rather than a flawed man-made policy that’s created lethal unintended consequences, housing troubles will continue to hold the state back. The law was enacted nearly a half-century ago and over time its defects have become obvious. It’s a mistake to think it can’t be improved upon.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.