SLO County supervisors weigh in on CEQA reform

March 5, 2017

T. Keith Gurnee

OPINION by T. KEITH GURNEE

Late last month, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors considered the Planning Priorities Report as prepared by the Planning and Building Department that outlined what the department felt those priorities should be. That department quickly discovered that the board had very different ideas as driven home by supervisors John Peschong and Lynn Compton.

Moving squarely to the top of the list was the long-overdue overhaul of the county’s administration of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The county’s CEQA process has been secretive and slanted for the better part of 30 years. The group responsible for overseeing the preparation of EIR’s in this county has long pursued a hidden agenda, earning the moniker of “the opposition team.”

Many of the EIR’s prepared by the county and its narrow team of consultants have been little more than slanted “hit pieces.” Where EIR’s were intended to be objective, informative, and truthful, many of the EIR’s processed by this county have been subjective, misrepresentative, and inaccurate. This has to change, and this board has showed the determination to make that change.

The board unanimously acted to direct the department to return for the revised Planning Priorities Report ASAP reflecting the board’s clear directive to fix the CEQA process and do it soon. With the solid backing of the board, the leadership of the department now has the authority to do what it should and must do.

As the department prepares to respond to the board, here are but a few of the things that demand improvement in what has been a clandestine, heavily biased process for the better part of three decades:

1.       Eliminate the secrecy: The CEQA process needs much more transparency, particularly in the early part of the process where administrative draft EIRs and staff responses to those drafts need to see the light of day.

2.       Change the culture: The county’s environmental review staff has been steeped in the “culture of no” for decades and has measured their careers by the number of projects they have turned down rather than the number of projects they’ve made better. They treat the applicants who pay for their services as adversaries rather than customers, and applicants are essentially paying them to impose their projects. The county would do well in incentivizing the early retirement of certain key staff members.

3.       Expand the eligible consultant list for EIRs: County environmental staff holds sway over a small list of CEQA consultants who are malleable to their wishes. Accordingly, the quality, accuracy, and veracity of the EIR’s produced by the county have suffered. The county needs to expand its list to avoid local prejudice and enhance the analysis by qualified firms to reveal truths rather than misperceptions.

4.       Pull back on the overreach: The County’s CEQA procedures go well beyond the state’s CEQA guidelines on such matters as minor parcel maps, minor lot line adjustments, and grading, resulting in a protracted and expensive process requiring an army of bureaucrats. The county needs to revise its guidelines to be consistent with the state.

5.       Establish thresholds of significance:  While the county’s environmental staff has fought this for years, establishing thresholds of significance for environmental impacts would simplify EIRs and reduce what have become exorbitant costs associated with the CEQA process.

6.       Allow applicant involvement in the CEQA consultant selection process: While the county should still retain the authority to ultimately select CEQA consultants at the expense of the applicants, allowing applicants to participate in the interview and selection process would shed more light on the CEQA process while providing more information at the outset of that process.

7.       Eliminate significance creep: The measuring stick for determining the significance of environmental impacts has become overly restrictive and arbitrary over the years. Today even the tiniest of impacts are being deemed “significant” when they are not. That needs to change.

8.       Craft reasonable mitigation measures: This county continues to come up with measures to mitigate environmental impacts that border on the ludicrous. Consider the Santa Margarita Ranch project which called for paying $94,000 per house for its assumed air quality impacts. Overreaching mitigation measures are designed to kill projects, not make them better.

9.       Work on statewide CEQA reform: CEQA has clearly begun to lose favor with the state legislature and the governor, and bills have been introduced to limit the scope of CEQA. Rather than an information tool to inform public decision-making, CEQA has become the weapon of choice for NIMBY-ism.

10.   Firmly direct the SLO County Counsel’s Office to support Local CEQA reforms: The county counsel’s office has been part and parcel of the county’s CEQA abuse, including blocking public access to administrative draft EIR’s and county staff responses to those drafts. That office needs to facilitate CEQA reforms, not block them.

It is high time and to the great credit of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors that they have unanimously taken the bull by the horns to bring about local CEQA reforms. Hopefully they will ride that bull to a timely and proper conclusion in improving a process that sorely needs it.







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12 Comments

  1. R.Hodin says:

    From my many years in construction and design I’ve come to see the EIR process as the path to ensure that a project gets built, rather than as a process that stops projects. It’s intent is to enable better projects and for the most part that is true. The unstated rule of development is to propose/submit projects which are 50% in compliance, knowing that you can negotiate to 75%, and that you’ll never have to reach 100%. The number of projects actually stopped by an EIR are so few it borders on nil. The CEQA process is the only tool that we have to address impacts. Mr. Gurnee must believe that his projects are so beneficial to society and the planet, that it comes as a personal insult that they should have to undergo CEQA review.

    (-1) 3 Total Votes - 1 up - 2 down
  2. Otis says:

    Over 15 years ago, as a citizen of Arroyo Grande, I spoke to SLOCOG and the Supervisors on the anti-growth policies that discouraged growth. For example 101 would never go from 2 lanes to three. That the Santa Maria bridge would never go to three lanes.

    I suggested that at that time they should could not bind future boards, that their duty was not to inhibit growth but to provide the infrastructure to support growth.

    The EIR process as the finding document of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has been a tactically useful tool by planners. In many instances it appears to been used to forestall or avoid the obligation to provide well planned infrastructure to accommodate growth. The process is inherently political in many instances where if properly used it does facilitate good planning.

    (-1) 15 Total Votes - 7 up - 8 down
  3. Pelican1 says:

    In order for the county to “:reform” CEQA, the act itself would have to be changed. If the county intends to interpret it’s requirements or content in any manner that is not consistent with law, they will no doubt be subject to third party lawsuits.
    The Act itself has to be changed.

    (-5) 15 Total Votes - 5 up - 10 down
    • TKG says:

      Not true. The County’s CEQA Guidelines and their administration of them go well beyond the states guidelines and should be amended to fit the State’s existing Guidelines. The State Office of Planning and Research has been working for years to update them, but their progress is measured in geologic time. My article also called for the County to work to amend the state’s guidelines which truly needs to happen.

      (1) 17 Total Votes - 9 up - 8 down
      • Pelican1 says:

        You can’t simply tailor CEQA to fit your needs.This is the California Environmental Quality Act…not the SLO County Environmental ACT.
        “Failure to comply with CEQA to provide full disclosure of information during the CEQA process, which would result in relevant information not being presented to the public agency, would constitute prejudicial abuse of discretion leaving the project proponent open to possible lawsuits.”

        (1) 13 Total Votes - 7 up - 6 down
        • unlisted says:

          Pelican1 sez “You can’t simply tailor CEQA to fit your needs.”

          I say, why not? The environmental zealots have! The NIMBIES sure have. And even the Unions have to blackmail projects into pay prevailing (i.e., union) wages.

          CEQA needs to be reformed at all levels – at the local implementation level, at the state regulatory level and at the state legislative level.

          CEQA has become a noose around California’s neck!

          (-5) 13 Total Votes - 4 up - 9 down
          • Pelican1 says:

            CEQA is subject to public, inter agency, and judicial review. The ONLY reform must be with the Act. CHANGE THE LAW and end the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of this important environmental process.

            (1) 5 Total Votes - 3 up - 2 down
      • Pelican1 says:

        TKG, how many CEQA documents have you prepared in your lifetime?

        (2) 4 Total Votes - 3 up - 1 down
      • Pelican1 says:

        Just as I thought.

        (0) 2 Total Votes - 1 up - 1 down
  4. Frederick1337 says:

    “Today even the tiniest of impacts are being deemed “significant” when they are not. That needs to change.”

    This is exactly why gentrification has been so significant throughout our county. The average median price of a home in San Luis Obispo is now $511,000, that is 195% above the national average.

    (0) 30 Total Votes - 15 up - 15 down
  5. rukidding says:

    Very well written article clarifying what the truth is regarding the application of CEQA not only in the unincorporated part of the county but thru out the entire county. Unfortunately CEQA has often been used by those who do not want any type of development to occur. I think that because these groups do have financial assistance to fight against development that staff weakens and ultimately gives in not wanting to be involved in litigation. I think that you may also have to look at staff that at times they too develop the NIMBY attitude.
    It is very refreshing to see Compton and Peschong finally stand up to do the right thing. Hopefully this will bring about good developments that don’t cost Developers hundreds of thousand dollars just to get an answer whether or not their projects are acceptable. I know over the years we have heard some say just charge the developers because they are making too much money. Well for those of you that think this you are wrong and all of those fees and costs are just added onto the cost of the development and if it’s a residential project you can just look in the mirror and thank government for not helping out to provide affordable housing. This is why the estimated current costs to pay in order to get a building permit (all fees) is up around $80,000.

    (15) 47 Total Votes - 31 up - 16 down

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