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In Search of Denser Developments, California Ponders How to Manage New CEQA Guidelines

Published by Aubrey Hicks on

by Jeremy Loudenback

infilldevelopmentCalifornia is finding that the path toward creating more compact, transit-oriented developments is not always a smooth ride.

Over the past couple of years, California has inaugurated new policies many hope will incentivize developers to build more in denser urban areas and lead to developments that prioritize transit, walking, and cycling over auto use. But when it comes to working in California’s often-strict regulatory environment, there are many questions left to answer.

On Tuesday November 18, a panel of experts, advocates, and local government officials will consider the impact of changes to California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as part of a Price Research Collaborative event. “CEQA and Infill Development: Should There Be a Safe Haven?” will take a closer at a growing controversy around new CEQA requirements mandated by a new law (SB 743).

Last year, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 743, which created a new approach to analyzing the transportation impacts under CEQA. Previously, the state had used a metric called Level of Service (LOS) to determine the transportation impacts of projects. If a project increased the number of cars on roads around a new development under the LOS approach, the project was not considered in positive terms, even if it possessed other potentially beneficial impacts.

In August, the governor’s Office of Planning and Research suggested an alternate measurement in lieu of the LOS metric: Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). VMT offers a more comprehensive view on environmental impacts, looking beyond just congestion. Proponents hope the new approach will help the state shift away from a car-centric perspective and move toward state goals related to multimodal transportation, pollution reduction, and density.

However, the way the new law is being implemented has caused spirited debate in recent months. According to supporters of the new CEQA draft regulations that suggest the use of VMT, the application of CEQA with the LOS metric resulted in many unintended consequences. Bike lanes and some dense developments were deemed to be environmentally harmful; sprawl and other developments characterized by wide roads largely designated for auto use were prioritized over more compact living environments.

However, some skeptics argue that the new way of measuring environmental impacts under CEQA are uncertain according to newly introduced goals, and likely to increase litigation. A recent blog post laid out potential problems to the use of the VMT metric and an expanded role for CEQA.  If implemented, the new CEQA regulations would come with new cost burdens that could actually discourage infill development. The new regulations, according to the authors, diverge from SB 743’s goal of streamlining the CEQA process for developers and lack available models of implementation.

Of course, many disagree with this assessment, and the issue has spurred a debate about the appropriate role of CEQA in advancing the state’s transformative goals of promoting the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, supporting of multimodal transportation networks, and encouraging a diversity of land uses.

But is there room for consensus moving forward? Members of the development, environmental, and equity communities will gather at next Tuesday’s Price Research Collaborative panel discussion to consider crafting a definition of a “safe haven,” a recommended approach to applying the new CEQA regulations that could be broadly supported.

Moderated by USC Bedrosian Center on Governance Director Raphael Bostic, panelists will include:

  • Ann Sewill, California Community Foundation
  • Ethan Elkin, UC Berkeley & UCLA
  • Rick Cole, City of LA
  • Mott Smith, Civic Enterprise Associates

The Price Research Collaborative aims to foster critical discussion about both specific policy areas as well as the ways in which those policy areas are being implemented. This collaborative brings together the Bedrosian Center on Governance and the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate.

Space is limited for this event. Please RSVP at the event’s Eventbrite page or contact the Bedrosian Center for more details.


Bedrosian Center