Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cut the Regulations that Hurt Jobs and the Environment

The CEQA Process. Confused?

The weakened state of our economy is pretty clear. National unemployment is 9.1% and California unemployment is 12.0%, the second highest in the nation. At a time like this creating jobs is obviously very important, so what can cash-strapped governments do to encourage job creation?

One basically free route is to reduce unnecessary regulations. I'm not one to bash all regulations. They can play a key role in securing important social objectives, including making sure that people don't displace the costs of irresponsible behavior (like pollution or extremely low wages) onto society. But that doesn't mean that all regulations make sense. Here are three ideas that could help jobs and the environment:

1) Reduce or eliminate off-street parking requirements. These regulations exist at the municipal level and are designed to ensure that it's easy to park a car at any given building. The problem is, minimum parking requirements can add significantly to the cost of development (i.e. housing and commercial real estate) and they encourage people to drive more than they otherwise would, thus harming the environment. Developers will usually build some parking on their own regardless of what the government tells them to do. Why not let them decide how much is enough instead of forcing them to do more? If parking shortages result, there's a simple solution: charge for parking. This is a key idea in Don Shoup's work.

2) Relax density and use-separation restrictions in zoning codes. This is more municipal-level regulation. Much land under municipal control is restricted by code to suburban-style low-density development. This results in separated land uses and spread out destinations which encourage driving and associated pollution. It also means that new housing and commercial space has to be built at the edge of cities instead of within them, meaning more destruction of habitat and costs associated with building new infrastructure. Importantly for greater Los Angeles, these restrictions on the supply of housing near job centers mean that housing AND transportation costs rise as people are priced out of central high-job areas. Making it better could be something as innocent as letting people build granny flats in their back yards if they're within walking distance of a shopping center.

3) Streamline CEQA for Eco-projects. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is a state law that requires environmental review and the preparation of extensive environmental documentation for projects with "significant environmental impacts". The way CEQA defines significant impacts can tie up an infill development project that increases traffic congestion (even while reducing per capita vehicle kilometers traveled), or a solar panel project that impacts wildlife habitat (while displacing energy from coal-fired power plants). Projects with obvious environmental benefits like these should have a streamlined CEQA process, including higher thresholds of significance for having to do a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and additional protection from lawsuits.

Again, not all regulations are bad, but why not ease up on the ones that are actually hurting the environment and job creation? Sounds like a rare area where the right and left can actually come together to make some progress.

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