Will CEQA ever give infill development a break?

SB 731 – now pending in the Assembly – is intended to do just that. But in the latest twist in an increasingly long-running tale, the bill has now been amended in a way that could push CEQA significantly in the direction of assessing the socioeconomic impact of infill development.

On Monday, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg took some amendments to SB 731 and Assembly Speaker John Perez referred it back to the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. 

 The major change calls on the Governor's Office of Planning & Research to do a study on economic displacement of residents in infill neighborhoods and revise the CEQA Guidelines based on the results.

The economic displacement idea was first raised two weeks ago in a letter from ClimatePlan, Greenbelt Alliance, and the Planning & Conservation League.  

"While infill development, done right, can greatly improve the quality and livability of a neighborhood and the health of its residents," the letter wrote, "new development can also result in both physical (direct) displacement and economic(indirect) displacement. Unchecked, the displacement of residents and neighborhood-serving businesses thatc an no longer stay in a neighborhood because of escalating rents/property values brought on by new development, can have significant harmful environmental, social, and health equity consequences. We believe these impacts should be fully incorporated into the CEQA framework."

In the past, the state has explicitly rejected moves toward assessing the socioeconomic impact of development via CEQA – in contrast to New York, whose CEQA equivalent moved in that direction a long time ago (but is not as frequently used on private development). These amendments reveal the tension among liberal Democrats in reforming CEQA. On the one hand, they want more infill development. But on the other hand, they can't let go of the idea that infill development will be bad for people who currently live in urban neighborhoods.

In an interesting blog posted on Monday, High Speed Rail blogger Robert Cruickshank argued that the opposite is true – that a lack of infill development can sometimes lead to gentrification too. "As San Francisco proves, the opposite is the case. Rules that limit or block infill development cause rents to skyrocket, since potential renters are all fighting over a small, finite set of available units," he wrote. 

If OPR's study led to actual changes in the CEQA guidelines requiring consideration of socioeconomic issues, it would broaden CEQA's scope considerably in infill locations – perhaps requiring different analysis, rather than less, which was the original goal of Steinberg's bill.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the Assembly passed SB 1, which would partially revive redevelopment. It seems headed for Gov. Jerry Brown's desk, though Brown vetoed an identical bill last year.