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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: Disaster Brewing | 08-04-2016
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Commentary by Andrew G. Fried
| Thursday, Aug 4, 2016
Andrew G. Fried

Andrew G. Fried

There’s an environmental disaster brewing in California, and the public is generally unaware of it.

The culprit? Gov. Jerry Brown.

California’s governor is pushing a piece of legislation called “Trailer Bill 707,” which seeks to increase the availability of affordable housing in California by “streamlining” the governmental review of housing developments that contain at least 20 percent affordable housing.

And by “streamlining,” we basically mean, “virtually eliminate” governmental review.

Brown’s Trailer Bill 707 — up for consideration as the state Legislature returns to session this week following summer recess — would clear the way for more affordable housing by neutering state laws that were established to protect the public and the environment from excessive impacts of new development.

As a so-called “trailer bill,” this piece of legislation is winding its way toward approval as part of the budget process. As such, it “flies under the radar” and avoids a great deal of public scrutiny. Trailer bills are not required to go through policy committee reviews, like regular bills do. It’s a slick way to slide impactful legislation through without catching much attention.

Trailer Bill 707 would be impactful, no doubt. Most notably, the bill would exclude qualifying projects from review required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the Coastal Act.

While viewed by some as a barrier to progress, CEQA is also California’s single biggest measure of protection against development that could otherwise run roughshod over the environment, our air quality, our water quality, our roads and highway systems, our historic assets, and more. CEQA ensures that the public has a voice in the review of development projects, and that environmental impacts are mitigated.

If Brown’s trailer bill passes, developments that include at least 20 percent affordable housing would be exempt from governmental review as called for by CEQA and the Coastal Act — and the projects would be approved “by right,” regardless of the damage they may wreak on surrounding communities and the environment.

The percentage drops to 10 percent for projects located near public transit.

In other words, affordable housing would reign supreme as the most important consideration — you might even say the ONLY consideration — in the approval of new construction. Local government review would essentially be removed from the development approval process, denying communities the right to help ensure that new construction doesn’t cause unacceptable impacts.

A key development review tool, CEQA, would be tossed aside, regardless of a project’s impacts, so long as a developer can designate one-fifth of a project as “affordable” — meaning the housing would cost no more than 30 percent of the income of households making less than 80 percent of an area’s median income.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make housing affordable for more people. That in itself is a noble goal. But the governor is throwing out the bath water and trying to toss out not just one baby with it, but a whole nursery of them.

On top of that, some observers contend that Brown’s Trailer Bill 707 wouldn’t even accomplish its stated goal, and may in fact wipe out existing affordable housing. Here’s what the Sierra Club of California says:

“The governor’s proposed by-right plan won’t solve the housing crisis, and it actually incentivizes gentrification. The plan allows as few as 5 percent of units of a new development to be affordable, making it a profitable move to demolish any existing housing and put in new expensive condos with only one or two affordable units. There is no limit on the size of the development that would qualify for this by-right status, and no strong requirements to prevent this law from being used to advance sprawl.”

The impacts of Trailer Bill 707 would be numerous, diverse and far-reaching, throughout California. There are so many issues that would arise with the dismantling of CEQA and other laws governing development that we could spend an entire commentary on each of them.

In coastal communities, Brown’s bill would essentially toss aside the Coastal Act, which protects sensitive coastal areas from overly aggressive development.

In communities with traffic concerns — like those of us in northern Los Angeles County — a development’s impacts on traffic could be disregarded, so long as there’s affordable housing in the mix. And there would be NOTHING our local government could do about it. Cities and counties would be stripped of those rights.

The list goes on: Air quality. Water availability. Water quality. Sensitive natural resources. Wildlife corridors. Endangered species.

CEQA protects all of these things and more from unchecked development. It’s about the environment, yes, but it’s also about protecting the quality of life for the human populations that occupy developed areas. All of it is interconnected.

Gov. Brown seeks to dissolve those connections. If Trailer Bill 707 is approved, development will proceed unchecked, “by right” and with disregard for the environment and for human quality of life, all in the name of affordable housing.

We’ve questioned the governor’s priorities on other fronts, like his senseless pet bullet train project, but this one takes the cake. It defies logic and denies local communities their right to review projects in the interest of protecting themselves and the environments surrounding them.

This undemocratic piece of legislation has drawn opposition from a diverse array of government officials and activist organizations throughout California, and for good reason. It’s a politician-made disaster waiting to happen.

Hopefully, the Legislature will recognize the potential devastation of Gov. Brown’s latest folly, and leave Trailer Bill 707 where it belongs: In the legislative trash heap.

 

Andrew Fried is president of Safe Action for the Environment Inc. To find more information regarding SAFE, visit www.Safe4Environment.org.

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