In November, a handful of opponents filed a CEQA appeal against the Fell and Oak Street bike and pedestrian improvements after construction on the project had already begun. Fortunately, the Board of Supervisors dismissed their claims that the project required a full environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act, and the appeal didn’t delay work on the project. But that’s not always the case with projects that improve street safety.
Pedestrian and bicycle advocates hope that legislation making its way through the Board of Supervisors will curb such late — and costly — CEQA appeals. Supervisor Scott Wiener, who authored the legislation, said it wouldn’t make any changes to CEQA itself, which is a state law. Rather, it would establish local deadlines to appeal development and street projects that are declared exempt from CEQA’s onerous EIR requirements. Such deadlines were mandated by the state legislature over a decade ago, and San Francisco is the only California city which has yet to comply with that mandate.
“When an appeal of a categorical exemption or negative declaration comes into the Board of Supervisors, we don’t really know if it’s even timely. The rules are that unclear,” said Wiener. “The Planning Department doesn’t know, the clerk of the Board of Supervisors doesn’t know, the people who filed the appeal often don’t know,” leading the City Attorney to determine the answer, which can take up to two weeks, he said.
The confusing appeal process has often been used as a tool to slow or stop projects that have already undergone extensive vetting via community meetings, analysis, and city approvals. The SF Bike Plan was held up for four years after a lawsuit was filed by Rob Anderson, forcing the city to do an extensive re-analysis that lead to no changes to the original plan. Even for relatively small projects like the protected bike lanes and pedestrian bulb-outs on Fell and Oak, the appeals process has added “unnecessary difficulty in making progress on our city’s stated goals,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition. “Our organization has unfortunately seen a lot of the bumps in the road.”
“It takes far too long to make improvements that save people’s lives,” said Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe, who pointed out that the organization actually filed a CEQA appeal in 2009 against the EIR for the planned CityPlace Mall (since re-named Market Street Place) which led to the sponsor agreeing to pay fees towards bike and pedestrian safety improvements. “Walk SF supports [Wiener's] legislation because we believe we still can use this process to make necessary appeals, but we’re also very concerned about how the current process slows down critical improvements for pedestrian safety,” she said.