Does the HAA (or anything else) Provide a Remedy CEQA-Laundered Project Denials?

Here is Part 3 or this four-part series:

The HAA prevents cities from denying or reducing the density of housing projects, but it doesn’t exempt projects from environmental review under CEQA. CEQA spells out time limits for the completion of environmental reviews, but as yesterday’s post explained, those limits have proven illusory in court. So if a city wants to deny a project that the HAA protects, what’s to keep the city from laundering the denial, as it were, through CEQA? Can the city keep asking the developer for additional environmental studies until, after squandering years and fortunes, the developer cries uncle and walks away?

That’s the million-dollar question raised by our running example, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ recent 8:3 vote sustaining a local gadfly’s appeal of the 469 Stevenson St. project. Rather than deny the project outright or reduce its density (likely HAA violations), the Board reversed the planning commission’s certification of the project’s Environmental Impact Report and directed the clerk to prepare findings that the EIR was inadequate.

Yet in view of what the Supervisors said at the hearing and afterwards, it’s pretty clear that the Board’s real objective was not to air out and mitigate specific environmental impacts but to nix the project. Most of the Supervisors who voted “No” argued that the project was not affordable enough and would cause gentrification – which is not an environmental impact and which is exceedingly unlikely to be caused by the project in any event. Supervisor Mandelman told a reporter that he’d “feel very good about this vote” if the site “become[s] a 100% affordable project,” but that if “15 years from now it’s still a parking lot, then I will not feel good.” That’s an explanation for a vote to deny, not a vote for further environmental study. Supervisor Melgar said the problem was that