CEQA Needs Urgent Reform

It saddens many tree huggers that the once heralded California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is being so abused by NIMBY groups that simple justice, common sense and economic progress demands its reform.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group is helping lead the charge to change and they have plenty of friends supporting their efforts. Labor, economic development interests, affordable housing advocates, transportation leaders, local land use planners and, yes, even environmentalists have called for change in the process of the law because delay has become denial for many good projects.

In short, what was supposed to be a law to ensure transparency and protect the environment has become a tool for obstruction. Project delays include BART to San Jose, California High Speed Rail, affordable housing projects, power plant construction, business expansion and road construction.

Make no mistake the CEQA abusers are costing taxpayers plenty. Ironically, the people who complain the most about government public relations budgets are the same people who claim they never get enough information and there hasn’t been enough transparency. The public relations folks are hired, in part, to ensure the record for public participation is adequate to survive a CEQA lawsuit.

The poster child for delay is a Senior Housing Project sponsored by the Santa Clara Methodist—Retirement Foundation—across the street from Valley Fair mall. That project, which would have been built by Charities Housing Developers, could have provided 162 units of needed housing for a population that needs an affordable alternative to market rate in Silicon Valley. (Disclosure: Kathy Robinson, wife of author, is a salaried employee of Charities Housing Developers.  She has no personal financial interest in the disposition of the property.)

By all rights and common sense, Charities Housing should have been able to complete the project by now. They produced a substantial Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the Santa Clara City Council approved the project, local NIMBYs forced a referendum, voters then overwhelmingly rejected the NIMBY arguments and approved the project. Then, having lost at the City Council and the ballot box, the opposition sued under CEQA, using the pretense the EIR was inadequate. The suit was rejected by the courts, but the entire process, including the court challenge, delayed the project for 10 years. Now the funding sources for construction are in jeopardy and the cost of the project has risen. By simply delaying the project, the opposition may accomplish its nefarious goal

There are many other horror stories of delay and denial, not because of an environmental issue, but simply the cost of money over time. That’s why the Silicon Valley Leadership Group is leading the charge for reform in the state legislature.

Let’s hope it takes less than 10 years to achieve.

Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.


  1. I started looking about the history of that site and found an old Metro article.  The lead for the article goes like this:

    How a 17-acre parcel of land in the heart of Silicon Valley went from agricultural open space to the planned Santa Clara Gardens development is a matter of considerable controversy. Critics say it was secret deals and hush money, and they’re not taking it lying down.


    I also found that the senior housing project you reference is less than 6 acres of the 17 acre site.  You might like to explain how the other 65% of that project is going to be used.

    • Thanks for the link to that article.  It ends prior to the referendum that gave Santa Clarans a vote on the Barec property. Of course when you have lots of money from a developer to convince people to vote a certain way, the campaign isn’t a fair playing field.

      A group organized to fight the election of former SC Council Member Dominic Caserta because of his votes in favor of developing the Barec property coinciding with receiving campaign contributions from the developer:

  2. The senior housing project you wrote about is up the road from Santana Row.  It’s the highest traffic area that I know of in this area.  It’s common to see people with signs protesting a block away, at the corner of Winchester and Stevens Creek.  It’s the only place in Silicon Valley that I know of where people routinely protest things.  The reason they do is that is where the most people will see their signs and honk their horns.  It is simply the most routinely congested place in Silicon Valley.

    The site used to be a UC Extension Agriculture Station.  It was farmland.  a few decades ago I looked at a house that backed up to that site.  The real estate agent said that the land would never be developed, and that if I bought the house, I could look forward to waking up every morning to a rural view.  It would be like living on a farm.  He was wrong.

    I can understand why the people that live around there are fighting the development.  I would.

    • The people who are against this are the same people who oppose everything. Who cares what a real estate agent said, who is he?  There’s a whole lot of open space in Montana, perhaps it’s better for you to live out your days there. We’re trying to do positive things here. We need to concern ourselves with the future of this area and increase the tax base so we can fund retirement at the age of 50 for all our police and fire.

  3. CEQA, like any other tool in the toolbox needs to be periodically taken out, cleaned and sharpened.  It is the only tool residents have to ensure participation in processes that affect us when it comes to development.  What dismays me is that there is no large contingent of residents (or even a token few) who are free of any affiliations that are part of this “collaborative” process.

    Having been one of those NIMBY people who used CEQA … and won… the most disturbing part of the process is the fact that the municipalities, agencies and school boards with a vested interest in the outcome of any CEQA project are the very same people who (without any training) certify EIRs as being accurate and complete.

  4. The carbon footprint per capita in the USA is double all significant developed economies excepting Australia. Sure, let us bring in more H1b visa workers to bring them to learn to add to that. Let’s look at the big picture. CEQA is an attempt to maintain quality of life for US citizens. Pure and simple, the population increase of this wonderful valley continues to diminish our quality of life, as we gauge progress on the increased number of those who suck up the world’s resources.

    But population reduction is blasphemy to the capitalist requirement of unbridled growth. That’s the inconvenient truth of what we do here, and teach to underdeveloped countries.

    • My carbon footprint is more than the guy at the intersection begging for money. After all I go to work every day and am raising a family. This other guy does nothing. Is he better than me? The carbon footprint per GDP, now that’s a much better way of measuring it. China is horrible in that respect. And that guy at the intersection who does nothing for society and yet periodically gets help from the Fire Department because he passes out out on someones lawn after drinking too much. His carbon footprint is criminal. Remember, carbon footprint per GDP.

  5. Traffic, ah yes.

    The Arena was going to gridlock downtown, force aged homeowners onto the streets and bankrupt the city.

    The Metcalf Energy Center was going to cause widespread cancer and reduce property values.

    The Diocese Project in Cupertino was going to gridlock foothill blvd, destroy Cupertino Schools and the vestiges of Open Space in the Valley.

    Highway 85 was going to cause cancer, gridlock the streets of Saratoga and reduce their property values to the great depression era .

    And every affordable housing development was going to reduce property values, cause gridlock, bring crime and make San Jose a magnet for the homeless.

    Now, of course, the new 49er stadium will ruin Santa Clara schools, provide gridlock on 101, fail to turn a profit and force the City of Santa Clara to go bankrupt.

    All of these apocalyptic visions certainly must be true based on the NIMBY howls of opposition.  It is a wonder any of them remain in this wasteland of a valley.

    • I’m sure if I spent enough time doing research I could find a few of these NIMBY sort of issues you were advocating for.  I don’t believe in being dogmatic about these so-called NIMBY issues.  I support some, I don’t support others.

      Why didn’t Obama approve the Keystone Pipeline?  Are you going to take Romney’s side on that one too?

  6. kinda of off-topic but I fully supported no Bart to San Jose if it meant the removal of the Flea Market.  Although I always yearned for the service extension to the South Bay (read: San Jose), let the commuters commute rather than take away a local cultural center.

    that said, I am stoked a compromise was met and the Flea Market is staying! If anything, more business for the FM!

  7. As the saying goes. “any stick to beat a dog.” For example, the 2007 Planning and Conservation League & PCL Foundation Symposium offered a workshop called “Making CEQA Work for You.”

    “It’s a typical way to attack an agency’s actions,” a former Santa Clara City Attorney told me in 2007, in reference to the BAREC development.  “Especially in a project of this depth. It happened with Sun [the company’s headquarters on the Agnews State Hospital site]. It’s a favored way to delay or stop [projects], because ‘delay’ is often the same as ‘stop.’”

    And for the record, BAREC was never a farm. It was an agricultural research station, and the research being done was on pesticides.

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