SLO County supervisors weigh in on CEQA reform
March 5, 2017
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.