Friday, July 24, 2015

Zombie falsehood about Bicycle Plan shambles on

Bay Area Council in action in Washington

I have to again invoke Paul Krugman's zombie idea definition: "beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die." 

Just the other day I dealt with Planetizen's falsehood about the Bicycle Plan litigation. 

Today's Chronicle has an op-ed (California can’t reach greenhouse-gas targets without CEQA reformby Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council ("The Voice of Bay Area Business"), a lobbying organization for the area's businesses and government agencies. 

Wunderman invokes the same falsehood as the progressive Planetizen:

A single individual used a CEQA lawsuit to delay San Francisco’s plan to expand its network of bicycle lanes and encourage more bicycle commuting. The lawsuit claimed the city had not sufficiently studied the negative environmental impacts of the project. Five years, several million taxpayer dollars and 2,200 pages of environmental review later, the plan finally was approved.

All three of those sentences are false. The "plan" of course is the Bicycle Plan, which was not about "bicycle commuting" but cycling in San Francisco in general. 

I've said this many times before, but let's go over it again: The city did no environmental review at all of the 500-page Bicycle Plan before it was passed unanimously by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. Once your appeal is rejected by the BOS---and they always are---you must either give up or litigate.

It was an easy decision for Judge Busch to make. 

The way the city proceeded with the Bicycle Plan obviously violated the California Environmental Quality Act, the most important environmental law in the State of California. CEQA requires environmental review of any project that even might have an impact on the environment. Instead of following the law, the city claimed a "general rule" exemption for the Bicycle Plan that can only be claimed when it's obvious a project won't have any impact on the environment:

Where it can be seen with certainty that there is no possibility that the activity in question may have a significant effect on the environment, the activity is not subject to CEQA (emphasis added).

That is, the city lied about the CEQA exemption from the start. Representatives from the Planning Department and the City Attorney's office lied during the hearing on our appeal. Of course a project that removes dozens of traffic lanes and thousands of street parking spaces from city streets "may" have an impact on the city's environment, even if that project declares the best of intentions, e.g., encouraging people to ride bikes instead of drive motor vehicles, thus benefiting the city's environment.

And the environmental impact review (EIR) that was eventually approved by the court was not of the same plan that was the subject of our original litigation.

Wunderman cites a Holland & Knight study on CEQA litigation that didn't even include our successful CEQA litigation against the City of San Francisco.

Wunderman includes this interesting point:

Another report by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office also points the finger of blame for California’s high housing costs squarely at CEQA. The report found that cities in California take on average 2.5 years to complete the various CEQA analyses required to permit new infill housing, and that’s before anyone files a lawsuit that can add many more years to the process.

Wunderman is referring to page 18 of the LAO report:

Our review of CEQA documents submitted to the state by California’s ten largest cites between 2004-2013 indicates that local agencies took, on average, around two and a half years to approve housing projects that required an EIR. The CEQA process also, in some cases, results in developers reducing the size and scope of a project in response to concerns discovered during the review process.

Hence, this isn't a problem with CEQA per se but about how sluggishly city planning bureaucracies handle CEQA cases, which is not about litigation.

Naturally, many of the businesses and organizations Wunderman represents as a lobbyist don't like CEQA. Walmart---oddly, not listed as one of his clients---doesn't like to do environmental reviews before it builds a new store, and the Bicycle Coalition was outraged when the court ruled that the city had to do an environmental review of the ambitious Bicycle Plan. Like a Walmart store, however, that Plan was a project that could/would have an impact on the environment.

The National Resources Defense Council did a study in 2013 on CEQA litigation that puts the issue in a realistic context (CEQA: The Litigation Myth):

...the absolute number of cases is small, about 200 cases filed per year. The number of cases is also small as a percentage of the total civil litigation in California, which is about 1,100,00 cases per year. CEQA litigation is a tiny 00.02% of the total civil litigation. CEQA judicial enforcement is also a very small percentage of the total projects considered under CEQA. The Attorney General’s office undertook a case study of CEQA challenges in the City and County of San Francisco from July 2011 through December 2011. The Attorney General found that only 18 lawsuits were filed out of 5,203 projects considered under CEQA. Since all of these projects were located in San Francisco, they represent urban infill projects surrounded by neighbors. San Francisco has a reputation for vigorous environmental oversight whose citizens often exercise their rights through the public participation and legal system. Yet the litigation rate even for the San Francisco infill projects was only 00.3%.

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