Blaming CEQA For The Lack Of Infill

Chip Johnson in today’s San Francisco Chronicle tackles the all-important question of the lack of housing in the Bay Area. He rightly focuses on the greed of those who seek to prevent new infill housing from being built.

But he goes awry in singling out the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as the primary culprit. He cites the discredited Holland & Knight CEQA study as proving that infill projects suffer the most under CEQA, when that study defined the term so broadly that almost 90 percent of housing projects in the state are classified as “infill.”  I wish he and others in the media would study up on this study before citing it, as it should not be used to inform policy going forward.

He then cites some CEQA reform measures that the study recommends, some of which I actually could support:

The study offered possible remedies: requiring anyone filing a new lawsuit under CEQA to state their environmental concerns, eliminating duplicate lawsuits for plans and projects that have already won approval, preserving the right of environmental review and public comment, and scaling back court-ordered invalidation of project approvals that harm health, destroy tribal resources or threaten the environment.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if suburban sprawl is blocked for environmental concerns, and open lands are protected and urban in-fill is limited, it’s going to be very difficult to provide housing of any kind, except for the very wealthy.

I would favor eliminating duplicate lawsuits over plans and ensuing projects, which ultimately means strengthening the CEQA “tiering” provisions that allow projects to proceed by-right once they are consistent with an already-approved plan. And I would favor greater transparency about who is suing and the settlements they reach.

But the problem with this study (and this article) is that CEQA is not the only significant barrier to new infill development, which is mostly stopped by local zoning, lack of adequate infrastructure in infill areas, and perverse incentives caused by Proposition 13. Too often proposed CEQA “reforms” are really about benefiting sprawl, oil-and-gas, and other industrial projects, with infill used as a convenient, politically popular cover.

I’m afraid Mr. Johnson may have fallen into that trap by citing this issue and this study so prominently in his piece.  Otherwise, I’m glad to see he’s taking on this issue.


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