Neighborhood groups wary of proposed changes to CEQA review process

S.F. Examiner File PhotoCEQA appeals: Late appeals

The sponsor of a proposal to amend The City’s environmental review process says he hopes to streamline an unpredictable and volatile procedure, but activist groups warn that the measure would reduce public oversight over development.

Supervisor Scott Wiener has proposed various changes to San Francisco’s interpretation of the California Environmental Quality Act, a landmark set of environmental rules that can be applied to an array of different development projects. Along with setting up more uniform protocols for certain types of CEQA review documents, Wiener’s legislation would significantly abridge the window for appealing a project’s approval.

Projects that entail environmental review usually require a number of different agency approvals. Under current law, development opponents can wait until the final approval of a plan before filing an appeal under CEQA guidelines. These 11th-hour objections — such as the recent appeal of a rehabilitation project at Lafayette Park — can delay programs and create a sense of uncertainty in the planning process, Wiener said.

To combat those scenarios, he wants the CEQA appeal process to begin after the first set of project approvals, at which time opponents would have 20 to 30 days to file an objection. His proposal would increase public notice requirements at the start of the approval process.

“This is all about making the process more orderly and predictable,” Wiener said. “Right now, one person can wait until the last minute and delay an entire project. We think CEQA review is incredibly important — we just want to make it more streamlined.”

However, some neighborhood groups, historic preservation bodies and environmental groups are wary of Wiener’s proposal, which would make it easier for large development firms to conceal the negative impacts of their projects, according to architect and planning activist Howard Wong.

“Building developers, business groups and conservative lawmakers have been trying to weaken CEQA guidelines for decades,” Wong said. “This is their latest attempt to confuse the public into buying into their agenda.”

On Thursday, the Planning Commission will vote on Wiener’s proposal. If approved, it will go before a committee of the Board of Supervisors and later the full board for final authorization.

Wong said the agenda item was originally scheduled to be heard at the Nov. 15 Planning Commission meeting — when it could have been “jammed through” before the Thanksgiving holiday with little notice. He said objections to the proposal from various groups forced the Planning Department — which supports Wiener’s proposal — to push the item back to Nov. 29.

However, AnMarie Rodgers, the manager of legislative affairs at the Planning Department, said the item was delayed because of a public noticing error.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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