New rules governing San Francisco environmental impact appeals approved

San Francisco's appeals process under a state law requiring review of construction projects' environmental impacts has remained mired in a lack of clarity for about a decade. But on Tuesday, that all changed.

Overhauls to the appeals process under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, were unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors. The legislation finally succeeded where three ex-supervisors — Aaron Peskin, Fiona Ma and Michela Alioto-Pier — failed.

The more than yearlong process of coming to an agreement had some supervisors playing a numbers game — such as highlighting the six Land Use and Economic Development Committee hearings on the proposal and the countless amendments to Supervisor Scott Wiener's legislation, many of which were forced by a dueling piece of legislation introduced by Supervisor Jane Kim.

In the end, Wiener said, he was happy with the outcome.

“The core of this legislation is the same as when I introduced it,” he said.

Among the main provisions of the legislation is that it creates a clear timeline for when CEQA appeals can be filed. Now those wishing to appeal have 30 days from a project's first city approval.

The debate over how to reform the process began in 2003 when the state Legislature passed a law allowing all CEQA determinations to be appealable to an elected body.

“This legislation will improve our process, make it more predictable and treat everyone fairly,” Wiener said. “People will know when an appeal has to be filed and when the appeal period has passed. No more midconstruction appeals unless a significant change to the project has occurred, no multiple appeals unless a significant change has occurred.”

Advocates who initially opposed Wiener's proposal were satisfied by a number of the amendments, including a more robust subscription-based notification system and city website listings of the Planning Department's decisions on whether projects are required to undergo a full environmental review or are exempted. There are about 5,000 exemptions annually, Kim said.

“The argument against a project that's being constructed should not be that the city rammed a project through or that we hid the ball in any way from members of the public to prevent them from giving input.” Kim said.

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