Out of Balance

It's one thing to battle fairly and another to rig the process entirely.

by Carolyn Chase

nvironmental Impact Reports, known as "EIRs," are the only way that anyone can get a handle on the impacts of projects or major policy initiatives such as the Zoning Code Update, the city's water repurification plans, or any other substantive projects which will significantly impact the environment or form of a community.

While many outright exemptions from review are often dictated by the legislature as a political decision without any environmental review most locally-driven projects require review under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Projects that could have environmental impacts, but where the city believes the impacts will be negligible, may request a "Negative Declaration," stating that they have determined that the impacts are insufficient to require a full EIR. Projects that really have no impacts can be declared exempt.

But now that boom times are back and the taxpayer-funded savings and loan industry bailout has been forgotten, this isn't enough for those who believe that the job of city government is to "streamroll" projects through the permitting process.

On May 5th, the San Diego City Council voted 5-4 to reduce the period for public review of both Final EIRs and Negative Declarations to a mere five calendar days. They passed the developer's agenda over the objections of the Planning Commission, the Community Planners Committee and other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club.


To EIR is human


To get a sense of how biased this is, consider that EIRs are almost always 300 pages or more, and community planning groups only meet every 30 days.

The purpose of an EIR is to identify and disclose impacts to decision makers and evaluate alternatives to a project that may reduce the environmental and social impacts. EIRs consist of a technical alternatives analysis of a number of areas of impact including air quality, transportation, land use and biology.

When EIRs are initially released for review as a "Draft EIR," everyone has 30 days to review and submit comments in support or against the proposed project design and alternatives. Sometimes 45 days are required and sometimes extensions are granted.

Once the comment period is over, the lead agency takes all the comments and responds to them. They then re-release a "Final EIR" which responds to input, answering questions or further explaining the project or mitigation details. This can be the only time to get questions answered. Substantive project changes are supposed to trigger another draft, but often they go straight into the final EIR directly.

In case you haven't gotten the picture yet, this is all extremely important work if you care about the urban form around you, or how natural spaces are turned into developments. The final environmental document is nearly always the single most important source of information.


Projects over people


The other piece of this picture is how much of this work of public comment and review is currently handled by an increasingly overwhelmed and disrespected set of community volunteers. The reigning ethos at City Hall, led by Mayor Susan Golding, is "projects over people."

The 14-day review period was part of a City Council action in May 1993 when the building industry wanted the review period reduced from 30 days to seven. Community and environmental groups wanted the 30 day period to remain. The compromise was down to 14 days. That is, until Mayor Golding decided to take the next wish list from builders and shove it down the throats of the community. She almost got away with it.


Getting the brush-off


On May 18th, when the ordinance change came back for its required "second reading," I was downtown by 1:50pm, putting in speaker's slips in the hopes of begging them into a motion to reconsider. The day began with pleading on the phone with the Mayor's office. Michael Beck, Endangered Habitats League and Gerri Stryker, Chair of the CPC and I cooled our heels though three hours of items, before it became patently obvious that the Mayor was manipulating the agenda just to push us to the end of the session.

In every other public meeting I attend, agenda items are pulled in order but not in this town by this mayor. She pulls items based on her own personal whim. At 5pm I'd had enough, said as much, and left. A sympathetic mayoral aide came running after me stating, "She really does care Carolyn, she really does." But I persisted as well. If the Mayor cared even in the slightest, she would have pulled our item in the noticed order, oh, an hour ago, or even ten minutes ago. Not only does she not care, but she is sending a message of utter disregard for any community or public process except that of paid lobbyists who are able to get private meetings and privileged agenda placements. It's streamlining for them and steamrolling for us.

So I hit the road, hoping I had made my point. A half-hour later over "Dial-a-Council" [ that lets you listen to council proceedings over the phone] I tuned in just in time to hear Juan Vargas making the motion to reconsider. At least someone was paying attention. But even as the mayor said she would support the motion, she was speaking against it. She asked Juan to amend it so that the time was reduced for Negative Declarations but not EIRs. Thank God, he held firm. Her next idea was to ask staff to come up with a way that projects did not have to be "held up." Maybe projects would not be "held up" if they did the right things to begin with.

The more she talked, the more it became obvious that she has probably never seen, much less worked with, a Final EIR. She was also oblivious to the fact that in the past the city has issued illegally both Negative Declarations and exemptions; usually, the only time they are caught is when some community volunteer takes the trouble to care - really care. But if you're only interested in greasing the wheels for more projects, regardless of their design or impact, you wouldn't really care about those things now, would you?

In the end, Byron Wear joined Vargas and the mayor in reversing their ill-informed votes of the prior week. The mayor's aide made a point to call me and make sure I'd heard that she had, in the end, done the right thing. Yes, I had indeed heard more than she thought, as I let her know I heard the Mayor continuing to try and water it down. "But she's just trying for some balance." I was told. Right. How many times has she had to tell her herself that? Things are so out-of-balance now, it's a joke.

Yes, I would say the mayor does care, but only about delivering the goods to project proponents, certainly not about community members, due process, fairness or the environment. If this vote reversal signifies anything, perhaps it shows that some of them are figuring out that the voters will care.

  Carolyn Chase is Chair of the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club, Chair of the City of San Diego Waste Management Advisory Board, and a founder of San Diego EarthWorks and the Earth Day Network