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Hearing on new rules for San Francisco project appeals marked by confusion

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“CEQA does not exist as a tool to delay projects,” Scott Wiener said. “San Francisco’s current procedures can, and sometimes are, used in that way. … We make it very easy in San Francisco for one person to delay a project for a significant amount of time.” - COURTESY PHOTO
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  • “CEQA does not exist as a tool to delay projects,” Scott Wiener said. “San Francisco’s current procedures can, and sometimes are, used in that way. … We make it very easy in San Francisco for one person to delay a project for a significant amount of time.”

Uncertainty and frustration reigned for hours on Thursday at the Planning Commission, where changes to the public process of appealing development projects were discussed at length — and with much confusion, even among commissioners.

The hearing was sparked by proposed legislation from Supervisor Scott Wiener that would clarify the rules surrounding public appeals through the California Environmental Quality Act. Projects undergo a series of approvals, or “entitlements,” that involve discretionary decisions by city agencies.

Currently, a public appeal can be filed within a period of time after each approval, which can mean costly delays over the course of months or years. Wiener’s legislation would modify that system to allow for an appeal only after a project’s first entitlement.

Wiener preceded the hearing by warning commissioners that they would hear “hyperbolic rhetoric” from opponents, and he attempted to pre-empt their arguments with his assessment of what the legislation would do.

“CEQA does not exist as a tool to delay projects,” Wiener said. “San Francisco’s current procedures can, and sometimes are, used in that way. … We make it very easy in San Francisco for one person to delay a project for a significant amount of time.”

He cited as examples the current Lafayette Park revamp and the years of wrangling over whether the 1960s-era North Beach Library should be considered a landmark.

The hearing was marked by anger from residents, many of them self-described development observers. One woman said she was proud of defying new projects despite the common vitriol against the so-called NIMBY viewpoint, or “Not In My Back Yard.”

Arthur Feinstein, chairman of the Bay Area chapter of the Sierra Club, warned that the legislation designed to reign in legal action could, in turn, face its own legal action.

“Step back and start over to make sure that this itself does not end up in court,” Feinstein said.

Commissioners ultimately delayed a definitive opinion of the proposed law and voted 6-0 -- with Commissioner Rich Hillis absent -- to recommend that Wiener gather more public opinion and clarify certain aspects of the proposal, such as what should be considered the “first discretionary permit” that would trigger the appeals period.

Planning Commission staff compiled data showing that of thousands of permits and projects pursued, 48 appeals have been filed since the beginning of 2010. Big projects — such as the Parkmerced housing overhaul and the waterfront development deal once associated with the America’s Cup regatta — have been appealed and sued in recent years.

Those types of projects must undergo an extensive CEQA-required “environmental impact report,” the additional appeals process of which would not be impacted by Wiener’s proposed law.

dschreiber@sfexaminer.com