Will new restrictions reduce the number of CEQA lawsuits?

City planning is rolling out policy that requires developers to use pre-qualified consultants for EIRs

May.May 05, 2017 03:45 PM
Jay Ziff

Long before the court decision Tuesday that halted — for a second time — the construction of the Hollywood Target, the NIMBYs fighting the project were optimistic it would happen. When City Council altered the local zoning code to accommodate Target’s 74-foot retail center after the initial ruling, it failed to require an additional environmental impact report, mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

For the community residents that sued the city over the project before the height adjustment was made, this was a no-brainer. They would sue again, and they would win — all thanks to CEQA.

Now, city planning is rolling out a new policy that some insiders say could help reduce the volume of CEQA lawsuits in the future. The department will soon require all private developers to use pre-qualified consultants to prepare environmental documents, it announced Thursday. The vetting process for these consultants will begin in June.

“The Department is interested in partnering with environmental professionals who have experience preparing comprehensive and defensible program-level environmental studies, consistent with the California Environmental Quality Act,” city planning spokesperson Cheryl Getuiza said in an email.

With more discretion in the hands of the City, consultants will be less likely to bend to the will of developers and skip steps that protect projects from lawsuits, land use attorney Edgar Khalatian told The Real Deal.

“Frankly, when you see developers lose lawsuits, a lot of the time, it has to do with CEQA,” he said. “What this does is that now developers can’t just hire whoever they want. There are people that push consultants to do [environmental impact reports] a certain way, so this will force them to think twice before wanting to just appease the developer.”

Often times, EIRs are not as thorough as they should be because developers want to breeze through the entitlement process, he added. A quicker EIR, which can cost up to $300,000 per mid-sized project, saves both time and money.

Jay Ziff, a consultant with Environmental Science Associates who is already on the vetted list for public projects, said the pre-qualification could help the city evade being sued over CEQA in the future.

“I think the fact that the city will go through a vetting process and make sure the pool of consultants that they use are people who have a good track record may help improve instances when they’ve had issue with litigation,” he told TRD.

The idea for the list was first introduced in a motion from six City Council members in April 2016. In addition to the drafting of a pre-qualified list of consultants, their proposal asked city planning to create a schedule for updating the city’s 35 community plans.

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