PD Editorial: Cutting red tape to build needed housing

The NBA teams got fast passes for new arenas - expedited environmental reviews with protection from protracted legal challenges. Santa Rosa and Sonoma County are asking for similar privileges to address the housing crisis.|

California doesn't have a shortage of stadiums and arenas for its pro sports franchises.

And maybe, just maybe, the Golden State's chronic shortage of housing could be reduced a little bit if residential development benefited from the favors state lawmakers have granted to the owners of the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors, among others.

The NBA teams got fast passes - expedited environmental reviews with protection from protracted legal challenges.

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County are asking the Legislature for similar privileges in three narrowly defined areas over a period of five years:

Raising the height limit for buildings in downtown Santa Rosa from the current cap of 10 stories to something higher.

Adoption and amendment of planning documents covering transit-focused areas of the city, as well as the business parks around Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

Housing projects on property owned by the city or the county and located within Santa Rosa's city limits.

They're seeking relief from CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act.

Signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan almost 50 years ago, CEQA requires public and private developers to identify - and, if possible, mitigate - the environmental effects of their projects. Without it, California would have more dirty air, more dirty water and more traffic congestion.

But complying with CEQA is costly and time-consuming, and abuse of the law by rival businesses and labor unions seeking leverage and NIMBY groups opposed to any development makes compliance more time-consuming and even costlier, at times scuttling worthy public and private projects.

Attempts to limit dubious legal challenges have been blocked by powerful interest groups, so lawmakers have started expediting environmental reviews on a project-by- project basis.

Many of them have involved sports, but Assembly Bill 2267 by Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, is intended to help Santa Rosa and Sonoma County address a housing crisis that became exponentially worse when wildfires destroyed 5,300 housing units.

Wood said “unless the region can replace these homes and expand the supply of housing in the next couple of years, we will lose residents, businesses and huge pieces of our community forever.”

Testifying at a state Senate committee hearing, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said the exemption makes sense because the city is pursuing environmentally friendly housing projects.

“We realize that this is not a small ask,” Coursey said. “You take CEQA seriously. We do, too.”

Wood's bill isn't a blank check, and it wouldn't promote sprawl. The bill covers areas already targeted earmarked for more intensive (and more transit- and pedestrian- friendly) development - downtown, the SMART rail corridor and the area around the airport.

And the exemptions are primarily for land-use planning documents, with the only potential fast-track construction limited to publicly owned land, most likely downtown parking lots and, possibly, the county administration center. The legislation wouldn't affect the controversial proposal to build housing at the former Sutter Hospital site on Chanate Road or potential redevelopment of the old county Water Agency headquarters on West College Avenue.

Critics, led by the Sierra Club, note that the targeted areas are outside the fire zone. That's true, but rebuilds already are expedited. And the need to replace so much housing complicates efforts to add new housing to meet unmet demand that is pricing many people out of the market.

There is no easy fix for the housing crisis in California or in Santa Rosa, but Woods' bill would be a start. It should be enacted.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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