Articles Posted in Initiatives & Referenda

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The development of a real estate project of almost any size is going to require compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act – CEQA – generally through the preparation of an environmental impact report – an EIR.  Those who have gone through the process know that the preparation of an EIR can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take a year or more, all this before the first public hearing.  Further, opposition to an approved project frequently results in a lawsuit, one which generally claims that there has been a failure to comply with CEQA, either because an EIR should have been prepared (if one hadn’t been) or else that the EIR that was prepared was inadequate.  That litigation can, by itself, add hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs and two or three years before the first spoonful of dirt can be moved even assuming that the opponents’ lawsuit fails.  Costs and delays increase if the lawsuit is successful.  Small wonder that developers look for ways around CEQA.

The California initiative process allows for project approval either because a city council decides to adopt the initiative as written or because it is submitted to the voters who vote in favor of the initiative.  It has been the law for over a decade that a project that is proposed through the initiative process and approved by the voters is not subject to CEQA.  This has led several developers, including Wal-Mart, to use the initiative process to get their project approved.  Wal-Mart scored a significant victory in 2014 when the California Supreme Court held that CEQA wasn’t implicated when the proposed initiative was adopted by a city council.  In that case, Wal-Mart proposed, and the city council adopted, a specific plan that authorized the expansion of an existing Wal-Mart store.

Other developers have followed Wal-Mart’s lead. For instance, Moreno Valley’s City Council adopted an initiative that approved a 40,000,000 square foot logistics facility in November, 2015.  However, the opposition’s responses demonstrate that the use of the initiative process isn’t a silver bullet.  First, opponents attempted to get enough signatures on a referendum petition to overturn the Council’s adoption of the initiative.  That worked in 2015 in Carlsbad when a referendum overturned the council’s approval of a proposed shopping center.  When the opponents couldn’t get enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot in Moreno Valley, four lawsuits were filed in February 2016 attacking the Council’s action.  A Riverside Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the City in September 2016.  That judgment is now on appeal.

Nor should it be assumed that a city council will automatically adopt an initiative.  Land use is political and a council may, or may not, be willing to take responsibility for approving a project by adopting the initiative.  The alternative is to put the initiative on the ballot to let the voters decide.  Such initiatives were on the ballot in Beverly Hills, Cupertino, Cypress, and San Diego County in November 2016.  All were rejected by the voters.

The bottom line?  There is a way around CEQA, but it’s neither guaranteed nor cost free.  Nevertheless, the use of the initiative should be considered for a substantial project.

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. . . The Corps’ Definition of Waters of the United States

From Clark Morrison:

Clark photoJustice Scalia’s passing may have an immediate impact on the Army Corps of Engineers’ expanded definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. Last October, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a nationwide stay of the Corps’ new broader definition until the matter is fully litigated, citing skepticism over whether the Corps’ definition is scientifically supportable. Recently, the 6th Circuit decided that it will hear the entire case rather than returning it to the district courts for trial. So, we may see a ruling on this regulation much more quickly than we previously anticipated. Should this matter end up before the Supreme Court, it should be remembered that Justice Scalia was a staunch proponent of the idea that the Corps should not exercise jurisdiction over waters that are not truly navigable (e.g., “reasonably permanent flow”).

 

. . . Dueling Ballot Measures for Los Angeles

From Alex DeGood:

Two competing initiatives are currently gathering signatures in the City of Los Angeles for placement on the November 8 general election ballot. One, called “The Build Better LA Initiative,” is sponsored by a coalition of labor unions and housing advocates. The second, called the “Neighborhood Integrity Initiative,” is backed by the Coalition to Preserve LA. Both initiatives would have far-reaching implications for future development in Los Angeles.

What will proposed ballot measures do to LA's skyline?

What will proposed ballot measures do to LA’s skyline?

The Build Better LA Initiative would affect projects requiring general plan amendments or zone changes that permit additional floor area, density, or height. It contains inclusionary affordable housing requirements, mandating affordability for up to 25% of the units in rental projects and up to 40% of the units in for sale housing projects. Offsite affordable housing and the payment of a substantial affordable housing in lieu fee would be options in some instances. The initiative also would impose substantial union labor and local hire requirements on affected projects.

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative appears to particularly target large development projects. It would impose a two-year moratorium on general plan amendments or zone changes that increase density or intensity. It also would require updating the general plan with various lower-growth principles and limit the City’s ability to approve parking reductions for projects.

Both initiatives take direct aim at the planning and development process in Los Angeles, and either one could dramatically alter development plans across the City.

 

. . . Inclusionary Rental Housing

From Steve Ryan and Tim Paone:

AB 2502 was introduced in the California Assembly on February 19 principally to offset the 2009 court decision in Palmer v. City of Los Angeles and allow local jurisdictions to impose, as a condition of project approval, rental units affordable to, and occupied by, tenants whose household incomes fall within the lower, very low, or extremely low categories. If adopted, AB 2502 also will apply to for sale residential developments. In 2013, Governor Brown vetoed similar legislation, noting that inclusionary rental requirements can “exacerbate” the challenges faced by low and middle income communities seeking to attract new development. That, however, occurred before the California Supreme Court’s ruling in California Building Industry Association v. City of San Jose upholding a City of San Jose ordinance requiring developers to include affordable units in their residential projects. The San Jose ordinance specifically stated that it would not apply to rental projects until either the Palmer decision was overturned by the courts or the Legislature authorized inclusionary rental housing. It will be worth watching to see if the Governor’s views on the potentially negative impacts of inclusionary housing requirements have changed since 2013.

 

. . . The Hiring of a New Executive Director for the Coastal Commission

From Tim Paone:

With the termination of Dr. Charles Lester as Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission, all eyes are on the CommBlack Hat-White Hatission’s selection of his replacement. Lost in the unfortunate characterization of Dr. Lester’s dismissal as a battle between developers and environmentalists was the Commission majority’s stated desire for a more efficient process. Shortly before the Commission hearing on Dr. Lester’s performance evaluation, former Commissioner Jana Zimmer had urged in an Op-Ed that appeared in the Santa Barbara Independent that a “black hat versus white hat” approach to the decision before the Commission was not productive. Given the prominence of the Executive Director position, there should be no shortage of candidates who are effective managers with strong integrity, have credibility with the environmental community, and don’t own either a white hat or a black hat.

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Are there circumstances where it would be possible to change, for example, the general plan land use designation of a 1,000 acre parcel from “open space” to “residential,” “mixed use,” and/or a hotel use without complying with the California Environmental Quality Act, even though potentially significant impacts could result from the change? In one of this year’s more important land use decisions, the California Supreme Court has answered that question with a clear and affirmative “Yes.”

The context of the Court’s decision is that of a “qualified” voter-sponsored ballot measure. For most local jurisdictions (i.e., a city or a county), a measure “qualifies” for the ballot when at least fifteen percent of the number of registered voters within the jurisdiction sign a petition to place the proposal on the ballot. Once sufficient signatures are confirmed, the legislative body of that jurisdiction (the City Council or the Board of Supervisors) has the choice of either placing the measure before the voters or approving the measure itself without change. Those are the only options. It has long been clear that if the measure is placed on the ballot and approved by voters, CEQA does not apply. However, the California Supreme Court has now determined that if the City Council or Board of Supervisors approves the measure itself rather than sending it to the voters, CEQA still does not apply. Continue reading →