CEQA Strikes Again in Holding Up Major Homebuilding Project

CEQA Strikes Again in Holding Up Major Homebuilding Project

Recently, the Southern California Association of Governments voted on new housing development goals for the region for the coming decade.  Its vote requires cities and counties to make plans to zone for up to 1.34 million new homes by the end of the decade.

The need to build additional new housing in California is without question.  Housing prices have soared to record highs lately, even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.  The latest figures from February from the California Association of Realtors show that median sales prices jumped 18 percent over the last year in Southern California and 26.5 percent in the Bay Area.

Unfortunately, opponents of new housing have used the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as weapons to block projects they oppose time and time again.

On an upcoming episode of PRI’s “Next Round” podcast, Nolan Gray says that CEQA, as currently applied, “ends up throwing sand in the gears of any necessary change or improvement in the state, and ultimately makes things like housing much, much more expensive.”

He spoke of cases where “non-profits or even for-profit developers have tried to build the housing that already the state makes so difficult to build” then having to face “bad faith litigation by people exploiting some of these environmental review regulations.”

In the latest example, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge has temporarily put the brakes on a large housing project just north of Los Angeles that would bring much-needed new housing to the region.

According to the Los Angeles Daily News, “the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in April 2019 gave final approval to the specific plan for Centennial at Tejon Ranch, a master planned mixed-use residential community located in the northwest Los Angeles County section of Tejon Ranch.”  The project plans called for the construction of more than 19,000 new homes, plus more than 10 million square feet of new commercial space – and would have helped the region make progress toward the new housing goals.

The project has been in the works for two decades and the builder has bent over backwards to work with environmentalists.  According to the Los Angeles Times, “the company brokered an agreement with several major environmental organizations in 2008 to conserve 240,000 acres of undeveloped mountains, grasslands and twisted oaks that are home to such species of wildlife as California condors and mountain lions” in exchange for the groups not suing to try and block it.

Yet groups including Climate Resolve, the Center for Biological Diversity and the California Native Plant Society filed 23 claims anyway, citing potential CEQA violations.  While the judge dismissed 20 of the claims, he agreed with their claims that the environmental impact report approved by LA County did not properly account for the project’s impact on emissions or wildfire risk and improperly claimed cap and trade would reduce its potential emissions.

While the ruling does not kill the project, it certainly has a much more uncertain future now.  The Bakersfield Californian reports that Tejon Ranch president and CEO Gregory Bielli said after the ruling, “environmental impact reports are extremely lengthy, complex documents, and it’s difficult to get everything perfect the first time out.”

The Hon. Dan Kolkey, PRI board member, has outlined several common-sense reforms to fix serious flaws in CEQA that are holding up housing construction projects across the state.  Noting that environmental impact reports have “morphed into a high-priced speed trap,” one reform he suggests would clarify the law to prevent courts from overturning a project approval where omitted information would not have affected its approval and did not affect the public’s ability to evaluate its impacts.  Such a reform might have helped resolve the dispute in the Tejon Ranch case.

Efforts to reform California’s costly and complicated environmental law routinely run into roadblocks in Sacramento.  This is despite the fact that Democrats and Republicans alike speak of the importance of removing roadblocks to building new housing.  Until the Legislature acts, CEQA will continue to stand in the way of Californians looking for relief from skyrocketing home prices.

Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.

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