Buried in the text of the guidelines for the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is a line stating that an environmental impact report (EIR) should be no longer than 300 pages.
It is a line that makes urban planning consultants like San Diego’s Bob Stark chuckle.
“You would be hard-pressed to find an EIR for any substantial project that is less than 1,000 pages,” said Stark, who is an Associate Vice President of Michael Baker International, a Pittsburgh-based engineering and planning firm.
This reality, Stark says, shows how the increased scrutiny regarding CEQA has fundamentally changed the way urban planners do their business. And it underscores the need for those involved in environment and land use planning to continue their education on this rapidly evolving law.
“While we are supposed to be writing [EIR’s] for decision makers and the public, we are now writing them for attorneys,” Stark said. “You end up with these overwhelming and technically over-the-top documents…it takes away from the main purpose of CEQA, which is to inform the public.”
Some would argue with this assessment and say that the more information put in front of the public the better, no matter how over-the-top it might be. However, there is no arguing the fact that planning departments and their consultants need to be far more savvy in real time regarding how the law is changing than they had to be in the past.
While California has always been progressive, the legal focus of the documents being written today is night and day from just 20 years ago, Stark said. Approaches and methodologies are literally evolving from project to project.
And the evolution has become more like a revolution when it comes to issues relating to climate change.
“Greenhouse gas analysis wasn’t even part of CEQA 10 years ago,” Stark said. “Now we are evaluating the effects of climate change in different ways than we were even a year ago. And a lot of the litigation around projects focuses on climate change.”
This is a point Stark emphasizes in classes he teaches as part of UC San Diego Extension’s CEQA Practice Certificate program, which gives planning professionals the opportunity to stay on the bleeding edge of CEQA law.
In this vein, Stark talks about how planners have to look at the issue of traffic congestion through an entirely different lens. In the past it was all about traffic congestion and the movement of cars. Now it’s about moving people in the most sustainable way possible.
So rather than sketching out plans for widening roads or adding roads to accommodate a new development, planners and their partners spend much more time limiting vehicle trips and creating smarter growth patterns. And they are also being asked to determine the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that a project will generate.
Thanks to computer modeling, they can do that with a relatively high degree of accuracy. But what has become the subject of great debate is determining the global significance of a local project. This issue, Stark says, is increasingly landing in courtrooms.
“Questions courts are now being asked to answer are: how do we measure the incremental contribution of a project to climate change?” Stark said. “And how do we mitigate for that contribution?”
This new level of scrutiny and complexity has led developers of large-scale projects to more frequently attempt to circumvent CEQA entirely by utilizing California’s citizen initiative process. If voters approve a project put on a ballot, then it is not subject to CEQA.
One prime example of this is the controversial Soccer City Project, the massive multiuse project being proposed for the now Chargerless Qualcomm Stadium land. Typically, the developers of a project like this would have to make an application to the City of San Diego. Then, as part of its consideration of the project, the City would require a large-scale environmental review under CEQA.
But by winning on Election Day the developers of Soccer City could avoid this step. It’s another avenue that developers see as a way to impart more certainty into their projects, Stark said.
“They will tell you they are doing all the environmental reviews anyway,” he said. “While that may be true, there is one critical aspect of the CEQA process that is not accomplished, which is the law’s disclosure and transparency requirements – allowing the public to review and comment on the project in an open forum.”
And though initiative drives are becoming more common, they can also backfire, with the public turning on developers who appear to be avoiding accountability.
“I think the public accepts that while CEQA is not perfect, its importance is understood,” Stark said. “It affords people a voice in their communities.”
Bob Stark is an Associate Vice President for Michael Baker International. Mr. Stark is also an advisor and instructor for UC San Diego Extension’s CEQA Practice certificate. The Certificate, offered both in-class and online, offers professionals the unique opportunity to gain the essential knowledge and practical skills vital to practice in the environment and land use planning sectors. AICP members can earn Continuing Maintenance (CM) credits by taking the courses in the certificate program, and MCLE credits are available. To learn more, call (858) 534-8139, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit extension.ucsd.edu/CEQA