Reform of building appeals must preserve right of community to respond to finished project

Building projects in San Francisco must withstand a painful approval process. In a recent article, The New York Times cited architects as calling The City’s approval process for new development “long and rigorous, perhaps the most onerous in the country.”

Supervisor Scott Wiener recently introduced legislation that aims to simplify one portion of this long and rigorous process: The City’s interpretation of the California Environmental Quality Act. CEQA, as it is known, requires state and local governments to study the environmental impacts of projects and to mitigate, when possible, the unsavory effects. The California Legislature passed the statute in 1970, and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed it into law. Developers — even those who are environmentally inclined — have generally hated it ever since.

In San Francisco, critics blame CEQA appeals — in which a person or group question whether the study and mitigation of impacts adequately cover the scope of a project — for holding up projects and making developers shy away from building here. Wiener says part of the problem is that opponents often wait until the final approval of a development before filing an appeal, thus stalling projects right at the point that they should be kicked into high gear.

So his legislation includes language that would limit appeals to a short window of time after initial project approval. As an example, he cites Lafayette Park in Pacific Heights, where one person filed an appeal and held up the project for three months.

We agree with Wiener that appeals can be — and often are — misused. The frequency with which such appeals are overturned in San Francisco shows that many development opponents are simply grasping at straws at the end of the process.

But CEQA appeals also are a crucial tool for holding developers and officials accountable and ensuring that impacts of any project are properly studied and mitigated, especially in a small, dense city where many people can be impacted by a single project. And sometimes such projects change significantly between the time of an initial and final approval. Often, these changes can be for the better and steer opponents away from filing an appeal.

Consider the development associated with the America’s Cup. In the year between its initial and final approval, that project’s scope first increased and then decreased significantly. And even though there was a lawsuit, the final approval pleased enough people to avoid any further appeal. But had Wiener’s proposal been in place at the time, project opponents would have had to step into the fight earlier and drag out the appeals. Instead, the project was negotiated to a scale fitting for the event and The City.

Opponents of Wiener’s legislation also note that opposition to a project does not always coalesce until a project nears the end of the approval process. Wiener’s legislation attempts to overcome this by making the outreach process more robust upfront. But the approval process in San Francisco is purposely set up so projects are vetted by several agencies, many of which ask different types of questions. Thus, Wiener’s proposal could mean some project impacts are not realized until it is already too late for community members to do anything about them.

We support the concept of CEQA reform, but not if it means requiring appeals to be filed before a project takes its final shape.

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