After weeks of delay, SFMTA emergency response projects can continue

Board of Supervisors denies five appeals against CEQA exemptions

The Board of Supervisors denied four appeals against various San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency projects Tuesday, clearing the way for progress to resume on initiatives such as Slow Streets, transit-only lanes, bike lanes and street designation changes.

All the projects are temporary, and they were determined eligible for statutory exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act by the Planning Department. The designation allowed them to avoid a lengthy and resource-intensive review, as they were deemed critical to The City’s emergency response efforts.

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, as few as one or two naysayers had stalled each of the projects for weeks simply by filing an appeal.

Local law mandates once an appeal is scheduled to be heard, all work on the project in question must be halted unless it’s addressing a health or safety concern, and Mary Miles, representing the Coalition for Adequate Review, as well as David Pilpel separately filed a litany of them.

Rather than directing limited resources toward implementation and evaluation of these projects, staff has instead been preparing materials and responses to their appeals, officials said.

“The actions have helped save lives in our most crowded and impacted neighborhoods,” Supervisor Matt Haney said. “Continuing to stall these projects would be both dangerous and irresponsible.”

Through their respective appeals, Pilpel and Miles challenged transit-only lanes for buses to deliver more frequent service, the Slow Streets program, which provides space for socially distant time outdoors, the removal of parking spaces outside food banks and testing sites to increase access and the removal of one travel lane and 12 parking spaces to create a protected bike lane on Fell Street, among other projects.

The Board of Supervisors opted to hear these appeals together Tuesday night, to the consternation of Pilpel, who appealed the SFMTA Emergency Temporary Street Changes Program and Emergency Temporary Transit Lanes Project.

Pilpel, a longtime City Hall regular, distanced himself from the challenges to the Panhandle project and Slow Streets. He said he “felt he was being denied basic due process” by the merging of “unrelated” appeals.

Separate appeals, similar themes

Although the five appeals are independent of one another, they do share similar themes.

Both Pilpel and the Coalition for Adequate Review challenged in their appeals whether the COVID-19 crisis meets the state law’s standard of “emergency,” defined by CEQA as “a sudden unexpected occurrence” that requires action to “prevent or mitigate” loss or damage to “life, health, property, or essential public services.”

COVID-19 has led to six months of some version of a shelter-in-place mandate, devastating economic loss and unemployment and 101 deaths in San Francisco alone. However, the appellants argued it doesn’t meet the technical “emergency” threshold laid forth by CEQA.

“I believe the current circumstances are a ‘new normal’ of ongoing, albeit extremely difficult, existing conditions. Further, the proposed actions, nearly six months in, are not an ‘immediate’ response in any real sense,” Pilpel wrote in one of his appeal letters. “In my view, the proposed actions are not ‘necessary’ but merely convenient.”

Sarah Jones, SFMTA Planning Director, conceded the “lengthy” COVID-19 crisis was likely not the kind of emergency the state legislature envisioned when crafting the CEQA exemption, but that it had clearly recognized exceptional moments where the “everyday approach” doesn’t adequately address the need.

Second, appellants questioned how the measures implemented would “prevent or mitigate” any of the risks posed by the coronavirus.

The Coalition for Adequate Review’s appeals asserted officials had provided “no evidence” Slow Streets or the Fell Street bicycle lane facilitated essential trips, and Pilpel speculated some of the actions could “compound or exacerbate” the emergency rather than mitigate it.

Finally, the appellants asserted the projects lacked transparency, specifically around their scope and duration.

Pilpel, especially, questioned whether an “invisible group of presumed bureaucrats” would be granted the ability to implement these projects at locations other than those already announced “with no public scrutiny whatsoever,” now that the “blanket exemption” had been secured.

Exemption affirmed

SFMTA and planning officials have maintained the projects mitigate the spread of the disease and support essential travel and essential businesses, an argument they repeated Tuesday.

Public comment overwhelmingly in favor of the SFMTA projects undergirded the board’s decision to affirm the CEQA exemption. Many speakers testified in favor of actions that prioritize streets for people, bolster funding for public transit and eliminate the power of a single appeal in halting progress.

Supervisor Norman Yee, who emphasized he supports the appeals process and the right of individuals to use it, said he felt it was “not necessary” for these appellants to come forward.

“It seems we really shouldn’t take people’s lives so lightly,” he said.

Even Supervisor Aaron Peskin, known to be a vocal advocate for the existing CEQA appeals process, resoundingly supported his colleagues in their evaluation that these appeals did not “meet the test.”

All the SFMTA efforts in question are temporary with the mandate to shut down within 120 days of the local COVID-19 emergency declaration being lifted. Officials emphasized all the projects have been implemented using “temporary infrastructure” and can easily be disassembled when needed.

For any part of these projects to become permanent, they’d be subject to the formal CEQA environmental review process as well as public engagement.

Mayor London Breed weighed in on the appeals process after reports of these roadblocks. Her office is expected to propose legislation within the next two weeks intended to raise the bar for what’s required to file an environmental appeal.

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