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Study Finds CEQA Doesn’t Stifle Housing Development—City Councils Do

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) isn’t constraining housing development in California, as some claim.

Instead a new study finds that city councils are constraining housing development with multiple and often redundant discretionary reviews and requiring developers to navigate dissimilar requirements for every city they build in.

The findings were reported last month in a working paper by UC Berkeley and Columbia University, “Getting it Right: Examining Local Land Use Entitlement Process California to Inform Policy and Process.”

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The researchers looked at multi-unit residential development projects in five Bay Area cities: Oakland, Palo Alto, Redwood City, San Francisco and San José.

The researchers found that instead of reserving discretionary reviews for non-conforming projects, city councils are imposing such reviews on most, if not all, residential development, even if the projects conform to the city’s zoning code, density requirements and general plan. The Santa Clara City Council instituted a policy like this last year.

In addition to adding delay and cost to development projects, the additional review can trigger additional CEQA review—an Environmental Impact Review (EIR)—even though the function of zoning codes and general plans are to provide that review in advance. In other words, it’s the municipal process that’s triggering the additional environmental review and slowing development, not CEQA law.

The study also found that the size of the project didn’t necessarily drive the length of the schedule—in fact small infill projects often took longer in the entitlement process than large projects.

Another counter-intuitive finding was that some of the largest development projects—those with the highest likelihood of having significant environmental impact—didn’t need additional EIRs. So any delays in those entitlements can’t be laid at CEQA’s door.

“In other words, what drives whether and how environmental review occurs for residential projects is local land use law,” the report says. Further, the data shows that “in many cases, these cities appear to impose redundant or multiple layers of discretionary review on projects.”

Varying processes from city to city also unfairly burden small developers and give an advantage to large companies with the money and staff to invest in lobbying local officials and gaining knowledge of local planning processes.

“Our interview data also confirms that well-capitalized developers with existing relationships and experience in specific jurisdictions are the best suited to navigate these complex local contexts, providing them a competitive advantage,” the report says. “The complexity and variation may also impact the capacity of planning staff to help developers understand the entitlement process.”

The report concludes that changing CEQA law at the state level isn’t likely to alleviate California’s acute housing crisis. State guidance on providing more complete and accessible project data and standardizing land use approval processes could help streamline the process.

The report by the UC Berkeley Center for Law, Energy & the Environment, Berkeley Institute of Urban and Regional Development and Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation can be found at tinyurl.com/berkeley-landuse-2018.

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