While land-use and zoning regulations that impose outright bans on certain kinds of development are the first line of defense for anti-development forces in urban areas, the permitting process, both for developments in compliance with local regulations and those that require a “variance” to be exempted from local rules, can be a real bottleneck for development.
A new report from the University of California, Berkeley finds how inconsistencies between different jurisdictions’ permitting delays in the Bay Area restrict development when compared to the California Environmental Quality Act’s (CEQA) requirements. Their results point to the conclusion that local CEQA reviews and other permitting processes, not necessarily CEQA itself, are a greater drag on the development process.
We found that these local governments are imposing discretionary review processes on all residential development projects of five or more units within their borders. [W]hat drives whether and how environmental review occurs for residential projects is local land-use law. Our data shows that in many cases, these cities appear to impose redundant or multiple layers of discretionary review on projects.
We also found that the processes by which local governments review residential development projects under their zoning ordinances and under CEQA varies from city to city. As a result, developers seeking to construct residential projects often must learn to navigate very different and complicated land-use systems, even if they work in the same region. This appears to particularly burden smaller development projects. Our data also shows that these cities rely on streamlined CEQA procedures for the majority of their residential projects, including many large projects. The effectiveness, however, of those streamlined procedures in terms of reducing timeframes for project approval varies greatly from city to city, indicating that a range of non-legal factors (such as practices in planning departments, or the amount of resources dedicated to planning) may impact development timelines.
Environmental regulations, though necessary in the abstract, can often pose a misguided hindrance to development (there’s nothing greener than blacktop, to borrow form Ed Glaeser). But the report finds that the patchwork of local permitting and review processes essential to almost all developments are the more significant obstacle.
Beyond the relationship between local implementation of and state requirements from CEQA, the paper notes the wide disparity between development time and permitting delays across cities in the Bay Area finding, “even in cases where two cities use identical state law provisions…the approval times still vary considerably.”
Though these are different jurisdictions, the wide disparity among cities within the same general area should raise alarm bells (much like how the wide range in occupational licensing requirements between states should also lead one to believe there’s something fishy in the rationale behind these laws.)
Finally, though the paper shows concern that a lack of public input (e.g. through local zoning board meetings) may harm “the least empowered and most vulnerable within cities.” However, both the paper and previous research find that these meetings do more harm than good, as anti-development types exert an outsized influence during them.