This Week In Land Use

​CEQA Reform

      Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  Well-intentioned legislator seeks approval of a modest, narrowly-tailored, much-needed repair of the CEQA process, only to walk into a firestorm of opposition determined to defeat the measure.  Welcome to the latest episode of CEQA reform.  Last fall, Supervisor Wiener introduced a reasonable measure that would bring some certainty to the CEQA appeal process in San Francisco.  The problem addressed by Supervisor Wiener’s legislation concerns categorical exemptions and negative declarations, the lowest possible level of environmental review under CEQA.  Under existing law, when the City approves a categorical exemption or negative declaration for a project, no time limit exists for when that CEQA approval may be appealed.  Some project opponents have exploited this oversight and have appealed projects at the last moment after months (or years) of work has been devoted to the project.  Supervisor Wiener seeks to correct this glaring problem by introducing time limits within which these CEQA approvals must be appealed.

      Not so fast.  Supervisor Kim recently introduced her own “CEQA reform” legislation that not only would thwart Supervisor Wiener’s efforts, but would severely worsen the already broken CEQA regulatory regime in San Francisco.  Among Supervisor Kim’s proposals are the following:  

  • Every project on every building 50 years of older – nearly ¾ of San Francisco’s building stock – would no longer be eligible for a CEQA Categorical Exemption stamp (often issued over the counter in a matter of hours) for a minor change, such as changing a window, replacing a rotted out handrail, or replacing a failing roof. Instead, any and all such projects will be required to get a “Categorical Exemption Certificate”, which is a detailed report that can take 3-6 months to issue and currently costs $5,000, as opposed to $300 hundred dollars for a Categorical Exemption stamp.
  • Similarly, all projects in parks and “open space”, which is a very broad term, would require the same 3-6 month and $5,000 certificate instead of the current Categorical Exemption stamp.
  • Currently, a CEQA document for a single project can be appealed only once, even if the CEQA document covers numerous permits associated with the same project.  Under Supervisor Kim’s proposed legislation, the CEQA document could be appealed each time a discretionary permit is issued for a project. So, for example, if a home remodel required 3 building permits, a street tree permit, and a curb cut permit – all covered by the same CEQA document – the CEQA document could be appealed five different times, triggering 5 separate appeal hearings at the Board of Supervisors for that single project.

      Supervisor Wiener’s legislation is scheduled to be considered at the April 8 meeting of the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Economic Development Committee.  We urge anyone interested in real CEQA reform to attend the meeting and show their support.

Mandatory Soft-Story Building Seismic Retrofit Program

What had been a matter of discussion for the last two years is now close to being a legislative reality.  This week, the Land Use and Economic Development Committee approved legislation creating a mandatory soft-story (i.e., wood-frame) building seismic retrofit program.  In particular, the program would require owners of wood-frame structures built before 1978, and possessing at least three floors and five apartments, to prove with an engineer’s inspection that they are not soft-story hazards.  The owner of a building subject to the mandatory retrofit program must engage an architect or engineer to prepare and submit to the Department of Building Inspection a screening form and optional evaluation form within one year from the operative date of the legislation.  For those buildings needing a retrofit, the city would require the retrofit to meet certain engineering standards. Buildings subject to the seismic retrofitting program are organized into four compliance tiers intended to address the most dangerous situations first, and all retrofitting work under the program must be completed within seven years from the legislation’s operative date.  The legislation is scheduled for a first reading at the Board of Supervisors on April 2.

Elected Office Wheel Keeps On Turnin’

Because of previous Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting’s November 2012 election to the State Assembly, two newly appointed officials recently assumed their respective duties in elected office.  Mayor Lee appointed Supervisor Carmen Chu (4th District) to replace Phil Ting as Assessor-Recorder, and then appointed Supervisor Chu’s legislative aide, Katy Tang, to replace Supervisor Chu at the Board.  Both Assessor-Recorder Chu and Supervisor Tang will be up for election this November.   

The issues discussed in this update are not intended to be legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is established with the recipient. Readers should consult with legal counsel before relying on any of the information contained herein. Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP is a full service real estate law firm.  We specialize in land use, development and entitlement law.  We also provide a wide range of transactional services, including leasing, acquisitions and sales, formation of limited liability companies and other entities, lending/workout assistance, subdivision and condominium work.