There’s a better way than CEQA: Urban Planner’s Perspective

150 150 Justin Ewers

Bike lane along Market Street in San Francisco (Photo Credit: John Guenther).

For Gabriel Metcalf, the perverse–and unintended–consequences of the California Environmental Quality Act can be summed up in five words: the San Francisco Bike Plan. 

After years of work in San Francisco to encourage the city’s environmentally-conscious residents to ride bikes instead of using their cars, the city approved a citywide plan in 2005 to do just that, only to find itself tangled up in a CEQA challenge that seemed to turn the law on its head. 

The suit, filed by a group called Coalition for Adequate Review (that’s right, “CAR”), didn’t target the bike plan’s actual impact on the environment–bikes don’t really have one, after all–but instead made a procedural argument that the city’s proposed bike lanes had not received sufficient review under CEQA. The group’s motives remain unclear, though the man behind the suit has compared cyclists to “Islamic fanatics.”

A court injunction ultimately forced the city to spend three years and over $1 million to conduct the review, which resulted in a 1,353-page Environmental Impact Report–and still has San Francisco’s sustainable development community fuming. 

“We were not allowed to add a bike rack in San Francisco for three years while we studied the negative environmental impacts of a bike lane,” says Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), a group that promotes long-term planning and sustainable infill development. “The goal was to take away space for cars and convert it to transit and bikes. That’s an environmental positive, but not according to CEQA.”

Tip of the iceberg

In Metcalf’s view, the bike plan isn’t unique: It’s just one of the most visible examples of how California’s premier environmental law—a more than 40-year-old statute that’s the subject of a growing reform debate in Sacramento—can have a decidedly negative impact on the environment, especially in urban areas. 

“CEQA is just not a very good way to regulate development,” says Metcalf, who believes the hurdles the law allows neighbors to put in front of projects—often in the form of court-mandated studies of potential impacts on congestion or aesthetics—simply drive developers outside the city limits: “The way it plays out in the real world, CEQA ends up causing sprawl.”

SPUR’s views on the subject were first outlined in 2006, when the group released a report called Form and Reform: Fixing the California Environmental Quality Act (PDF), detailing a proposal for reforming the law to allow for more transit- and bike-oriented infill projects. 

“Stopping projects is what California does best. CEQA has become the tool of choice for stopping bad ones and good ones,” the report concluded. “Viewed broadly, CEQA has contributed to sprawl and worsened the housing shortage by inhibiting dense infill development far more than local planning and zoning would have done alone. To re-form California, we must first reform CEQA.” 

With state lawmakers pledging to take a hard look at the law this year, Metcalf believes the first step should be to take a page out of another state’s planning playbook—and change how CEQA works in urban settings. 

At almost exactly the same time that California adopted CEQA, he points out, the state of Oregon chose a different path, opting for a system that relies on integrated local and regional growth management planning. Instead of allowing environmental lawsuits to be filed at the end of the long and complex planning process—often discouraging or derailing projects, even if they don’t end up in court—Oregon has ensured local land-use decisions work in support of regional growth management objectives from start to finish. 

Life without CEQA

In Metcalf’s view, this has helped Oregon develop a sterling record of environmental protection, while also eliminating the uncertainty and high costs associated with CEQA (though even Oregon is working to streamline its process). 

“In general, CEQA makes it take many years to get approval to do infill development,” says Metcalf. “That means somebody who’s trying to do a project is paying money month after month for a piece of land while they go through environmental review. It’s not just a couple of weeks. It’s years. Delays of this magnitude are driving up the costs so much infill has become infeasible except in the highest-priced locations.” 

To drive more infill across urban areas, Metcalf hopes lawmakers will consider dramatically changing the way CEQA works inside city limits.

“If it were up to me, I’d say inside municipal boundaries, we use planning instead of CEQA to make land-use decisions,” he says, especially now that California cities are working to make their plans consistent with SB 375’s sustainable community strategies—regional blueprints that integrate transportation, housing, and land-use to achieve state environmental goals. 

As for environmentalists’ concerns that streamlining the development process this way gives local leaders so much flexibility they could harm the environment? 

“I think the environmental movement needs to do a 180 on this and decide that the core strategy we’re going to use to protect the environment in California is to make way more infill development happen, so the next 20 years look radically different than the last 20 years,” says Metcalf. 

From the courtroom to the planning department

Metcalf acknowledges that his approach would push the debate about sustainable development into the planning process—and ultimately the political arena—but that, he believes, is where it belongs. 

“Ultimately, it depends on the wisdom of the people we elect to make these decisions,” says Metcalf. “But I’d just say what we’re doing now is terrible for the environment. What we’re doing now is building California for the automobile. The path to shut down sprawl development and open up infill requires a fundamental rethink of the regulatory system.”

Metcalf isn’t blind to the challenges involved in this approach. “The anti-sprawl side of this debate still has to fight a war for the hearts and minds of the voters of California to convince people we should do infill instead of sprawl,” he says. “That battle is taking place in every city in the state. That’s the big work ahead.”

In San Francisco, this struggle continues, but the city did win a small victory in the battle over its bike plan. After years of delay, the city was allowed to proceed with its plan in 2009, adding 34 miles of bike lanes and watching the number of people who bicycle in San Francisco climb 71 percent.

“We should change laws so that it’s viewed as an environmental positive to do infill development,” says Metcalf. “The idea that you have to mitigate something that’s good for the environment is crazy.”

CEQA in the 21st Century — a series of news stories and individual perspectives designed to educate and spark dialogue on CEQA as the California Legislature revisits the role the environmental law will play in the future of our economy.


Justin Ewers

All stories by: Justin Ewers