California Should Reform Environmental Review for Everyone

Kevin Drum

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Should California eliminate environmental reviews of homeless shelters?

Aiming to speed up the construction of affordable housing and homeless shelters in California, new legislation would make all new low-income housing projects exempt from a key environmental law that has been used to restrict development….“People are homeless, rents are too high and we just can’t sit here and say the status quo is working,” said Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), the bill’s author. “We have to push hard to get affordable housing done, emergency shelters and permanent supportive housing. We’ve got to say enough is enough.”

CEQA requires developers to disclose a project’s potential environmental effects on the surrounding community and take steps to reduce or eliminate them. Doing so is often a time-consuming and costly process made longer by lawsuits that can last years.

This is a terrible idea. Construction projects don’t suddenly become harmless just because they serve a good cause. Should we also eliminate environmental review for hospitals, concert halls, and animal shelters?

Likewise, CEQA is either a reasonable law or it isn’t. If it is, it should stay. If it’s not, it should be reformed. But if it’s reformed, it should be reformed for everyone. Environmental reviews should be focused on legitimate environmental impacts—impacts that are real regardless of how virtuous your construction project is.

What’s happening here is that progressives are being hoist by their own petard. CEQA in recent years has become an all-purpose roadblock to new construction of all types, something that liberals mostly celebrate when it’s holding up an office building or a housing development they don’t like. But now it’s turning out that CEQA can also be used by NIMBYs to block construction of things that liberals do like. Imagine that. So their answer is to carve out exemptions for the stuff they like and leave everyone else in a legal morass.

I’m in favor of reforming CEQA. California should require rigorous environmental reviews of construction projects, but the requirements for a proper review should be clear and reasonable, not the basis for endless litigation. And this is a pretty good time to do it. If we can find a compromise that both developers and do-gooders can live with, we’ll probably have a pretty good law.

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