CEQA Debate: Is CEQA Bad for Bikes: As It’s Read Now, Yes!

Let’s start it up!

I have just started reading about CEQA. I have read the FAQ as well as a single piece of case law. Now, I see another view, and all ready I’m pissed.


I know I need to read more. Let’s get that out of the way, but this seems like we are speaking vaguely to avoid thinking too clearly and this is bad for the law, bad for cycling, and bad for California.

So says Ben Christopher:

“To back up, CEQA is the 1970 state environmental protection law which says that any project built, funded, or approved by a government body in California needs to pass ecological muster.”

I don’t know what “ecological muster” means. But it’s vague and sloppy.

Here’s a quote from the law:

“(1) If there is substantial evidence, in light of the whole record before a lead agency, that a project may have a significant effect on the environment, the agency shall prepare a draft EIR.” [Environmental Impact Report] [http://ceres.ca.gov/ceqa/guidelines/]

The key word to this law is IF as well as SIGNIFICANT IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT. There are many, many projects which don’t fall under this.

Ben continues:

“Whether it’s major city development projects, state high-speed railway plans or that tool shed you want to build in your backyard, the relevant agency has to ask whether “there are feasible alternatives or feasible mitigation measures available which would substantially lessen the significant environmental effects” before signing off on anything.”

The court disagrees on this:

“On the other hand, common sense tells us that the majority of private projects for which a government permit or similar entitlement is necessary are minor in scope — e.g., relating only to the construction, improvement, or operation of an individual dwelling or small business — and hence, in the absence of unusual circumstances, have little or no effect on the public environment. Such projects, accordingly, may be approved exactly as before the enactment of the EQA.”

Again, my beef isn’t that my interpretation or Ben’s is correct, but rather both of us need to up our game to READ MORE. I feel that he was reading the law in an overly broad way which did not take into account case law, context, nor even common sense.

Ben continues:

“If a project has been approved (or exempted from evaluation completely) without the proper once-over, the public has the right to challenge that review. So far, this is all irrefutably good stuff.”

No, it’s not irrefutable and it’s not all good. When environmental law is allowed to be abused to create more environmentally hazardous and more dangerous streets, we all lose.

As I stated before, the notion of legislative intent is one important factor that’s often left out of modern interpretations of CEQA. The point isn’t to veto pro-environmental projects nor is to create unnecessary paperwork. The point of the EIR is a way to document that the project is environmentally sound. The paper work and the potential abuse does nothing on its own to help the environment.

“I wade into the ongoing debate over CEQA, with much unease.”

And I jump into it like a fish in water.

“For starters, the minute that I start to explain that CEQA stands for the California Environmental Quality Act and that San Francisco City Hall’s administration of that particular law is the subject of a long-running and heated political discussion, particularly over the question of which municipal body gets to adjudicate which appeal and in regard to the timing of the petition process and … never mind, you’ve probably already hit the back button.”

There are good reasons for this. This is because some well meaning people are getting so tied up in the minutia of the law they don’t see the bigger picture. But worse is that people who reflexively and irrationally hate bicycles and other green development are deliberately abusing and perverting the process which is intended to protect the environment in order to gum up obvious safety and environmental improvements.


“For those of you still with me, here’s the other reason I worry about writing this: Those who follow this issue seem to follow it very closely and with a level of vociferous conviction that makes my equivocating self a little nervous, because as a cyclist and a citizen, I can sympathize with both sides of this argument.”

That’s the problem, the two sides you believe in don’t exist. Those who care for the environment want bicycle infrastructure. Full stop. Those who don’t care about the environment wish for a broad reading of CEQA which will make things tough for environmentalists and cyclists. Those are the two sides.

“Of course, the Coalition’s beef with the local CEQA process dates back to 2005 when, after the City was all set to move forward with its new city-wide Bicycle Plan, the proposal was stopped by CEQA appeal by the misanthropically tenacious Rob Anderson. The City, Anderson argued, had not properly vetted the bike plan’s impact on transit and overall traffic congestion.”

Only in a fuzzy headed world of today would it not be obvious that more people on bicycles means less people on freeways and trains which helps all of us. These facts have been proven over and over again and are common sense to those of us who don’t hate bikes.

“Wiener’s solution: Once a project is given a green stamp of approval by the Planning Department, a would-be challenger only has 30 days to file an appeal. In other words, an appeal can’t be filed on a project after the backhoe’s been rented. Also, in those cases where the Board has to approve a municipal project (say, a new bike path), under the proposed law, a majority “Aye” vote would count as both an approval of the project itself and as an affirmation of its environmental soundness.”

Sigh. If we had more honest people or better read advocates to begin with, we wouldn’t have this problem in the first place.

This is a messed up solution to a messed up problem.


That’s an interpretation of the law that some people have come up with including SF’s City Hall. That’s a shame, but it’s not everyone’s reading of the law. By taking “both sides” you are weakening the cyclist’s side.

“The stated goal of Wiener’s bill, then, is to limit redundant appeals and restrict the ability of obstructionists to repeatedly obstruct. In the last few weeks, other examples of lone, disgruntled NIMBYs tying up perfectly good and green projects under the guise of environmental concern have made the rounds in the media to highlight the need for reform.”

Why not use common sense to explain to the court that the intent of CEQA is to help the environment?

“”There are developers out there who are going to push this through to bypass the environmental analysis process and that is not good for anyone,” she said. In other words, weakening the appeals process is a double-edged sword. Limit the ability to hold up bike path construction and you limit the ability to hold up ill-conceived developments across the city.”

And I thought that one of the original points of NEPA and CEQA was to preserve open space.


“”I’m a bicyclist. I don’t have a car. I’m a member of the Coalition,” said Vaughan. “But from my point of view, it’s good to fully assess any plan.””

For what? Why do people think that they need to micro-manage everything? I say if it’s in the city limits, build it!

If it’s a coal plant or a factory that will definitely have “significant environmental damage” remember this? This is the prerequisite for decided whether we need an EIR or not. Otherwise, build it and get out of their way.

“Certainly, I do understand the hesitancy to tinker with the administration of a long established environmental law. And while I don’t like the fact that someone can hold the city’s bike lanes hostage for almost half a decade, I also recognize that the next time a delay tactic is employed against a major project, it might be against one that I’m less partial to.”

Notice that we don’t have a single example. We need to be a bit more concrete here, Ben.

“That said, I am not so convinced that Wiener’s reform would lead to a pandemic of skyscraper rush jobs.”

Yeah, because if you built a sky scraper in a big city that would be a nightmare.

I don’t get where they get these people who insist on living in one of the coolest cities in the US, which is so cool because people have been allowed to dream big and build big, and now they want to grind that process to a halt. I just don’t get it.

There are shit hole places where they will NEVER build a skyscraper. If skyscrapers are such a problem, we can move there.

Manhattan is one of the most environmentally efficient places in the country.

It seems that Ben and the Sierra Club are confusing awesome urbanism with environmental damage.


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