Full speed ahead, and damn the facts! CEQA in operation in Berkeley

OpeEd By Becky O’Malley : berkeleydailyplanet – excerpt

Last weekend I had two more lessons in how powerless the California Environmental Quality Act is to inform politically-based decisionmaking. One was at the Wellstone Democratic Club’s endorsement meeting and the other was the Superior Court hearing on the EIR for 2211 Harold Way.

It was disappointing, but not surprising, to hear both candidates for Berkeley’s District Five City Council seat who spoke at the Wellstone Democratic Club meeting on Saturday endorse the ongoing plan to cut down many of the blue gum eucalyptus trees in the East Bay Hills and kill off the stumps with Roundup. Coincidentally or not, both are trained as lawyers.

This is a controversy that has been going on for quite a while now, all over the country in many contexts. For my money, the best analysis of the politics involved, with a side of science cites, can be found in a story which ace reporter Andrew Cockburn wrote for Harpers Magazine last year: Weed Whackers: Monsanto, glyphosate, and the war on invasive species. It’s well worth reading end to end, and you can do it online for free.

A lot of environmental decision-making is mistakenly based on the Sesame Street principle: Which one of these things is not like the other? When the eucalyptus tree has been scrutinized, a lot of the analysis comes down in the end to personal preference: love ‘em or hate ‘em: natives good, introduced bad—or maybe it’s the other way round. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

We attempt, with inadequate data and cumbersome legalistic processes, to make decisions which are more properly scientific, or would be if the data existed. For a decent view of what facts we have, see Management of blue gum eucalyptus in California requires region-specific consideration in the January issue of California Agriculture.

As near as I can determine, the Achilles heel of the East Bay Regional Park/FEMA scheme is the promised “restoration” plan: what will happen in the park after the trees have been chopped down and the stumps nuked with Roundup. We just don’t know enough to be sure that the lovely native grasslands which preceded the trees can be sure to come back as before, and some park users might prefer woodlands to grass, an even more difficult goal. In situations like this one, the paper’s authors suggest, eucalyptus roots may have altered the soil in which they grow with persistent chemicals which kill other plants.

A professor of environmental studies of my acquaintance tells me that “restoration is a moving target, an evolving field”. It’s frequently a promised mitigation in an environmental impact study, but more often than not it just doesn’t happen as planned, either from unforeseen scientific impossibility or lack of funding. And sometimes it’s cynically promised by governmental bodies with no intention of enforcing compliance. In Santa Cruz there’s a “restored wetland” which was promised to mitigate a building project elsewhere that is routinely clearcut by city officials worried that criminal activity might thrive among those “weeds”.

Another manifestation of the flaws in our environmental decision-making was on view Friday in Oakland in the court of Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch, hearing the challenge to the environmental impact report on the project for 2211 Harold Way in Berkeley, which was approved on December 8 by Berkeley’s clownish City Council. Petitioners were citizens James Hendry and Kelly Hammargren, appearing individually on their own without benefit of lawyers, a Herculean task which they executed remarkably well, all things considered.

Next time you hear Governor Jerry Brown whining that his developer pals are suffering mightily under the heavy burden of the California Environmental Quality Act’s reporting requirements, please laugh out loud with me. Here we have a multi-million-dollar project to construct 18 stories of luxury apartments, tearing down in the process a film center which is a mainstay of the downtown Berkeley economy, tunneling under a historic building which is built on infill on a creekbed with a ceramic foundation.

(Some of you may have seen the reports of a building in San Francisco also built on fill which has started to sink…) .

Despite CEQA, we were in the last round on Friday, and the chances of two private citizens stopping the project were slim.

In the developer’s corner: the Manatt law firm, the great big one which has historically represented all the bigtime Democratic pols.

Representing the public interest: a retired nurse and an economist, doing their damndest to figure out what CEQA should have done to inform the decision-makers adequately.

Here again, it’s a matter of separating the weeds from the flowers. CEQA is supposed to do that, but it fails…

There is an election in November. A better city council might be the only way to prevent future travesties like this one…  (more)

The failure to protect valuable community spaces is seems to often be on the part of the politicians who are still buying into the Plan Bay Area theme that anything new and expensive that increases the value of the property is better than whatever it replaces. Some efforts to stem that reasoning are taking root in San Francisco as artists, cultural institutions and small businesses situated in post-industrial PDR (Production, Distribution and Repair) zones, fight back with Prop X. If you can figure out which candidates agree with your vision of your city you should vote for those people, especially the ones you send to Sacramento and Washington. That is where the damage is being done, as the author is finding out. There are so many bills aimed at tearing down CEQA it is hard to keep track of them. We try to track some of them here: https://discoveryink.wordpress.com/california-bills-2016/

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