Monday, June 6, 2011

CEQA and Development Reform for the City of Los Angeles

CEQA and Development Reform for the City of Los Angeles

Although CEQA is a California statute, local agencies have significant discretion in how they implement its ever-growing requirements. As Los Angeles and other Southern California cities look to stimulate job recovery by promoting sustainable development, there is an opportunity to make major improvements in the way that environmental review and entitlement approvals are implemented at the local level. We identify below some practical solutions that Los Angeles and other cities can make to incentivize quality smart growth development.

Streamline Environmental Review for Re-Use Projects.

ISSUE: The Los Angeles Adaptive Re-use Ordinance has stimulated economic growth and revitalization of historic buildings in the downtown area, Hollywood and other parts of the City. A key incentive of that ordinance is the elimination of CEQA review for re-use projects that do not require discretionary approvals, such as zoning approvals or use permits, resulting in a streamlined approval process that can substantially reduce development costs, timeframes and risks. However, the existing ordinance is limited in its impact, as it only applies to residential and hotel projects in buildings constructed before 1974.

SOLUTION: The City could significantly stimulate economic development by expanding the ordinance to eliminate CEQA and site plan review requirements for re-use of newer buildings, as well as commercial uses, such as office and retail development. These projects enhance the City's sustainability goals by encouraging revitalization of existing buildings, which is inherently more environmentally friendly than demolition for new construction. Further, the expansion to promote a greater variety of uses should stimulate development in the City's commercial corridors, thus promoting new employment opportunities.

Exempt Urban In-fill Projects from Unnecessary Environmental Review.

ISSUE: CEQA contains a statutory exemption for urban in-fill projects that comply with applicable plan and zoning requirements and do not create any significant impacts to traffic, noise, air quality or water quality. Although a significant number of development projects in urbanized Southern California fall within the scope of that exemption, that exemption is rarely used. The City of Los Angeles often bases its refusal to apply the exemption on its imposition of a list of standard mitigation measures on virtually all development projects.

SOLUTION: Qualified development projects should be allowed to use the urban in-fill CEQA exemption by incorporating the City's list of standard environmental conditions as project design features. By doing so, the City will be able to protect environmental standards without requiring applicants to comply with unnecessary, time-consuming and expensive environmental review requirements. As a first step, the City could create a pilot program where the use of the exemption is limited to certain project types and/or a community area supportive of new development, such as Downtown.

Comply with Statutorily-Mandated CEQA Deadlines.

ISSUE: CEQA contains strict deadlines for the environmental review process. For example, the city must determine within 30 days after accepting an application whether to prepare an EIR or negative declaration, and must complete and certify an EIR within one year of accepting the development application as complete. As a practical matter, these deadlines are routinely ignored by local jurisdictions, leading to review processes that may last several years.

SOLUTION: Given that EIRs are typically prepared by consultants retained and paid by developers, the failure to meet statutory deadlines are a significant source of frustration and financial risk, resulting in a major disincentive to investment in Southern California. In light of budgetary and staffing constraints facing local cities, they can achieve compliance with these deadlines by allowing developers to fund the use of dedicated staff or third-party consultants throughout the environmental review and approval process for designated types of projects.

Alston & Bird Attorneys Named Among Top 25 Land Use Attorneys in California

Ed Casey and Shiraz Tangri have been named to the Los Angeles Daily Journal's 2011 list of the Top 25 Land Use Attorneys in California. According to the Daily Journal, attorneys were chosen based on their work on projects, entitlement and litigation, as well as their overall body of land-use related work in 2010 and 2011.

Casey was lauded for two recent courtroom victories representing Playa Vista, the largest mixed-use development in West Los Angeles, which involved a complicated environmental impact report (EIR) process.

Tangri was cited for his work on several major energy and infrastructure projects in Los Angeles County, including successfully defending at trial the approval of a super-tanker terminal at the Port of Los Angeles set to be the only West Coast marine terminal capable of accommodating the largest petroleum ships.

For more information about CEQA and development reform, please contact Shiraz Tangri, a partner in Alston & Bird's Environmental & Land Development Practice Group.

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