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The Sword and the Shield

Is CEQA to blame for the North Bay's housing crisis?

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The landmark California Environmental Quality Act of 1970 was intended as a shield against construction projects that imperiled the environment. But in a case of unintended consequences, critics charge that the powerful law has been wielded as a sword by labor groups, environmentalists and neighborhood groups to defeat proposed housing developments. The result, they argue, is that a well-intentioned law has driven up the cost and lowered the supply of affordable housing in the North Bay and California at large.

In a way, this is a tale of two competing points-of-view about CEQA. In one corner, CEQA critics decry the law as a leading impediment to building transit-oriented and infill housing in the state—and especially in urban regions such as Los Angeles and the greater North Bay. That's the gist of a recent legal study by the San Francisco law firm Holland & Knight. The analysis was published in the Hastings Environmental Law Journal.

In the other corner are supporters of CEQA who say those claims are overstated, and perhaps wildly so, and that the real driver behind the region's struggles to deal with its affordable housing crisis, or any housing for that matter, are the local agencies (zoning boards, planning commissions) that also must sign off on any proposed development.

That's an argument advanced in another recent report published by UC Berkeley School of Law, called "Getting It Right," which serves as a handy counterpoint to the Holland & Knight report.

This is more than an academic debate. The discussion comes at a key moment in the North Bay, which is still reeling from last year's devastating wildfires that destroyed more than 5,000 homes in the region, making an acute housing crisis even worse.

A bill co-sponsored by State Assemblyman Jim Wood (AB 2267) "would exempt from the requirements of CEQA specified actions and approvals taken between January 1, 2019, and January 1, 2024." According to a legislative analysis, the bill sets out to determine whether Santa Rosa and Sonoma County would need additional legislative support from Sacramento to ensure the rebuilding process isn't slowed by red tape. Santa Rosa has already passed an ordinance, its Resilient City Development Measure, that set the stage for the broader CEQA exemptions for the region now under contemplation in Sacramento.

Baked into Wood's bill is an assertion that generally jibes with the Berkeley study: CEQA-related lawsuits are actually not that common, and that exempting Sonoma County and Santa Rosa from CEQA won't lead to a rash of lawsuits. "Although certain interests believe CEQA litigation to be a swathing impediment to some projects, the numbers . . . indicate otherwise," says a Senate Environmental Quality Committee report on the Wood bill from June 11, which further notes that "the volume of CEQA litigation is low considering the thousands of projects subject to CEQA review."

Among other supporters, the Wood bill is favored by the city of Santa Rosa. The Sierra Club has opposed it, and the local Greenbelt Alliance has not taken a stand on it.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been on the side making the "swathing impediment" argument when it comes to CEQA's intersection with organized labor. In past comments, Brown put the blame for any CEQA abuse squarely on the state's powerful Building Trades Council, as highlighted in the Holland & Knight report. Brown told the UCLA magazine Blueprint in 2016 that CEQA reform is impossible in California, since "the unions won't let you because they use it as a hammer to get project labor agreements." Project labor agreements (PLAs) guarantee a development project will use union labor.

Unsurprisingly, local labor leaders do not share the viewpoint that PLAs are contributing to the North Bay housing crisis. "We've supported CEQA for years and years," says Jack Buckhorn, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He doesn't support CEQA reform, he says, because there is nothing to reform when it comes to PLAs and organized labor. "It's an easy target to say labor is the problem, but all the research we've done—it doesn't prevent projects from going forward. They are making this stuff up to try and jack labor."

Buckhorn says he's unaware of Brown's comment to the UCLA paper, but says, "We don't buy into these arguments. I reject the argument that projects are abandoned or not built because of abuse of CEQA."

Marty Bennett of North Bay Jobs for Justice echoes Buckhorn's pushback.

"We feel in terms of ensuring highly skilled, highly qualified labor, that PLAs are in the best interests of the public."

A PLA was adopted in advance of a recent development project undertaken at Santa Rosa Junior College, and if securing a union contract with good pay serves to delay a project, then so be it, he says.

"A PLA can cause delays in the development process, but in terms of serving the public interest, those delays are well worth the time—particularly in terms of environmental consequences."

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