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Don’t blame CEQA for traffic in Mission Valley.
In fact, don’t blame it at all for the bad (or even the good) long-term consequences of development decisions that stem from using the law.
Why not? CEQA doesn’t dictate particular outcomes. CEQA’s primary focus is on disclosing the bad aspects of development decisions. It leaves the ultimate decision-making to public officials.
When a government agency prepares a CEQA document, the goal is to give the public and the decision-makers a reasonably complete forecast of the proposal’s environmental impacts, a reasonably complete list of measures that will reduce otherwise significant impacts to a level of insignificance and a reasonable range of alternative proposals.
Armed with that information, it is up to the public to make the case for or against the proposal, and it’s up to government officials to decide whether to approve it. Decision-makers are free to ignore the public, but not until they’ve, as one appellate court put it, “had their noses rubbed in” a proposal’s harmful environmental effects. If the decision-makers persist despite public opposition, the public has two options: finance an expensive lawsuit, or boot the decision-makers from office.
When it comes to things like traffic, as with almost all environmental impacts, the constraints on a development proposal are not dictated by CEQA. The CEQA process identifies the constraints, but it is laws and expert advice outside CEQA that impose the constraints.
You can verify this yourself. Pick up the environmental impact report for, say, the Quarry Falls project in Mission Valley. In each section dealing with an environmental impact, you’ll see a discussion of the legal standards and expert recommendations that apply to the project. But there won’t be any substantive requirements from CEQA. In the case of traffic, for example, the standards to be met were set by the city of San Diego’s general plan and development code, state and federal laws and the professional judgment of the project’s environmental experts.
Development outcomes, in other words, are a function of other environmental laws that were democratically enacted and expert advice purchased by the government and developers. CEQA itself simply outlines the impacts and the options for avoiding the worst of them.
So the next time someone blames a development decision on CEQA, be sure to ask whether the person is objecting to transparency, democracy or both. These are all CEQA added to the outcome.
Cory Briggs is a public-interest lawyer who has litigated numerous CEQA lawsuits. Briggs’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.