Why CEQA matters

Pub date April 9, 2013

By Arthur Feinstein and Alysabeth Alexander

OPINION Is now the time to significantly weaken San Francisco’s most important environmental law? When our world is facing the greatest environmental threats ever experienced, why is there a rush to diminish our hard won environmental protections?

That’s the question we should all ask Supervisor Scott Wiener, who has proposed legislation that would significantly weaken the city’s regulations that enforce the California Environmental Quality Act.

Global climate change and extreme weather events are sending a clear message that the world is in trouble. Unprecedented droughts threaten our food supply and drinking water, while floods and sea level rise threaten our homes (the Embarcadero now floods where it never has before). The ozone hole still exists, threatening us with skin cancer, and the critters with whom we share this world are experiencing an unprecedented extinction rate.

Recent region-wide planning efforts, such as One Bay Area, expect San Francisco to provide housing for more than 150,000 new residents, bringing even more impacts to our city.

The best tool available to city commissioners, supervisors, and the public to understand and effectively reduce negative environmental effects of new projects is CEQA, which requires analysis and mitigation of unavoidable environmental project impacts. CEQA mandates that the public be informed of such impacts, and requires decision-makers to listen to the public’s opinions about what should be done to address them. It allows the people to go to court if decision-makers ignore their concerns.

Without an effective CEQA process, the public is helpless in the face of poor planning, and planning based only on the highest corporate-developer-entrepreneur return on the dollar with no regard for environmental consequences, including noise, night-lighting, aesthetics, and transportation — all issues of concern to urban residents. And with current tight real-estate economics, worker safety is at risk if developers cut corners on environmental review, especially with projects built on toxic and radioactive waste sites like Treasure Island, which potentially endanger construction workers and service employees who will work in these areas after projects are completed.

Wiener’s legislation, introduced at the Land Use Committee April 8, makes it much harder for the public to appeal potentially damaging permit decisions, by shortening timelines and establishing more onerous requirements for such appeals. In many instances it would also steer appeals away from being heard by the entire Board of Supervisors, instead allowing small committees to rule on these crucial issues.

A broad coalition of environmental, social justice, neighborhood, parks protection and historic preservation groups, allied with labor unions, is challenging Wiener’s attack on our environmental protections.

Supervisor Jane Kim recently stepped forward to champion these efforts, and work with these groups to draft a community alternative to make the CEQA process more fair and efficient while carefully protecting our rights to challenge harmful projects.

The supervisors need to reject Wiener’s damaging legislation and consider Kim’s community-based alternative in seeking to truly improve our local California Environmental Quality Act process.

Arthur Feinstein is chair of the Sierra Club Bay Chapter. Alysabeth Alexander is vice-president of politics for SEIU Local 1021.