"Smart Growth Law" for Redevelopment Renders Ca Environmental Quality Act Meaningless

A CEQA "anti-sprawl" bill passed in 2008 under the guise of legislating "sustainable development" may have devestating environmental consequences.

SB 375 is supposed to mandate “sustainable” regional growth, however upon closer investigation it appears to do just the opposite. It removes the CEQA requirements for virtually all infill projects and basically gives developers free reign to demolish anything they desire in the name of creating "affordable housing" or anything within a half mile of a transit priority project. The problem with this sort of short sited legislation is it does not address one of the biggest issues with "smart planning" and that is the very "unsmart" idea to throw historic buildings into landfills in order to replace them with higher density projects. As with everything, the Building Industry lobbied hard on this one and they clearly won.

It used to be that CEQA was the only tool the community had to fight redevelopment abuse and now that is gone. CEQA did some really smart things. It said that at the very least a property had to be evaluated to determine if it was a valuable historic resource and if it was it gave the citizens some power to protect it. It also offered citizens some help in mandating that an Environmental Impact Report had to be filed if a proposed project was massively out of scale or if it destroyed some important vistas or it had some other major impact on the environment. And while that did not ensure that the project could be stopped, it was really all the citizens had to potentially stop a really bad project.

This new legislation removes that requirement for developers. Here is an excerpt:

Housing Needs Allocations. SB 375 requires that the aggregate regional housing needs assessment reflect the achievement of a feasible balance between jobs and housing within the region. The allocation of housing share to each individual city and county must be consistent with the sustainable communities strategy. SB 375 also includes new rules that apply when a city or county fails to complete rezoning sufficient to accommodate its share of regional housing needs; the city or county may be prohibited from denying housing developments located on sites the general plan slates for rezoning to accommodate affordable housing.

New CEQA Limitation For Transit Priority Projects. SB 375 defines a “transit priority project” as a mixed use project meeting specified ratios and densities that is located within one-half mile of a major transit stop or high-quality transit corridor identified in the regional transportation plan. Such a project can be exempt from an EIR requirement if a detailed laundry list of requirements is met.

New CEQA Limitation For Certain Residential Projects. SB 375 establishes a broad rule for projects with at least 75% of their square footage dedicated to residential uses. If such a project is consistent with a sustainable communities strategy or alternative planning strategy, and the project incorporates the mitigation measures required by an applicable prior environmental document, then the CEQA document for the project “shall not be required to reference, describe, or discuss (1) growth inducing impacts; or (2) any project specific or cumulative impacts from cars and light-duty truck trips generated by the project on global warming or the regional transportation network.” If the CEQA document is an EIR, it “shall not be required to reference, describe, or discuss a reduced residential density alternative to address the effects of car and light-duty truck trips generated by the project.”

So I know that's alot of language to pour through but in simple terms it means: virtually any project can evade any environmental reviews and redevelopment abuse can continue because these intentionally broadly defined parameters could apply to virtually any project. Notice how the "transit priority project" doesn't actually even have to be built.

To put it in perspective the CEQA lawyer in Sacramento said to me "you could have the Taj Majal and they could tear it down". This is a big deal for redevelopment because redevelopment doesn't follow the rules of San Diego, which requires a review if a structure is 45 years or older (although this has certainly not stopped development fraud or abuse). Redevelopment only follows the rules of CEQA. So CEQA is ALL citizens had to fight a really bad abuse of redevelopment power.

Despite what developers say, it has always been a big uphill battle for the citizens to save anything as you can see from the historic neighborhoods that have been bulldozed at an alarming rate over the last 10 years.

When I first started learning about sustainable design in Architecture school, the very first thing we learned was that the greenest building was the one you saved. The EPA admits that building construction debris comprises around a third of all waste generated in this country and contributes substantially to greenhouse gases, so why are we throwing these buildings away and why is there no impetus or environmental legislation to protect them? And why does "environmental legislation" support demolishing them?

So SB 375 which clears the way for developers to destroy anything historic in the name of sustainable growth is plain and simply a fraud!

Donovan Rypkema is a Columbia educated leader, lecturer and author on the importance of historic preservation in redevelopment. Rypkema in a 2007 lecture to the Historic Districts Council Annual Conference, held in New York City says this:

“Razing historic buildings results in a triple hit on scarce resources. First, we are throwing away thousands of dollars of embodied energy. Second, we are replacing it with materials vastly more consumptive of energy. What are most historic houses built from? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are among the least energy consumptive of materials? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are major components of new buildings? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. What are among the most energy consumptive of materials? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. Third, recurring embodied energy savings increase dramatically as a building life stretches over fifty years. You’re a fool or a fraud if you say you are an environmentally conscious builder and yet are throwing away historic buildings, and their components.”


Thanks for a great summary of the "downside" of SB 375. We are not "anti-growth" but we do have concerns about the somewhat "hidden" provisions of SB 375 that, as you point out, waive some very important concerns addressed in CEQA. Hopefully your message will raise awareness of this wolf in sheep's clothing.

Thank you. Yes the 1st clue that this was a bad Bill should have been the support by the Building Industry and the Chamber of Commerce. They would never support anything if it was actually "anti-sprawl".

What this Bill really appears to do in simple terms is transfer the enforcement authority of "smart growth" from CEQA to the Lead Agencies which as we know is not a good thing. The Lead Agencies are notorius for rubber stamping really bad projects w/ negative declarations. That is what they did w/ that project on Florida that bulldozed 12 craftsmans that could have easily been converted to affordable housing and the lots were so big additional housing could have been built behind the homes. I have seen some of the most egregious projects receive negative declarations from these Lead Agencies because the Lead Agencies are just shills for the developers.

So on paper the Bill doesnt sound too terrible. After all its about the environment right? Well its about removing the environmental protections that were really historic and monumental achievements.....the protections that said we had to treat these historic building w/ the same respect we would treat a wetland and while the developers still won in many cases, it was a very important tool that kept from destroying absolutely everything.

So it took all the authority to oversee "smartgrowth" and made it the discretion of these corrupt Lead Agencies. And to add insult to injury it does NOTHING to stop sprawl because it makes it so ambiguous to determine what would require an EIR that it is utterly meaningless.

they also gave a Neg Dec to the boulevard project that demos the original 7up bottling plant and saltbox so if these agencies now have all the authority to determine if a project is exempt from CEQA we are in big trouble.

I can't say enough about the gravity of this. These guys single handedly destroyed the most wonderful and important environmental legislation California ever had to fight development in typical fashion....using the words "smart growth".

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