New Bill Seeks to Curb Use of Environmental Review to Delay Worthy Projects

Matt Smith
The bike lane injunction is in the rearview mirror, thankfully
Proposed Legislation by Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier aims to diminish the role of state environmental law in delaying local projects posing little threat to Mother Nature.

And -- don't you know it -- Mary Miles, the attorney who used environmental law to block San Francisco bike lanes for years, has emerged as the bill's main foe.

On Sept. 27 Miles sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors purporting Alioto-Pier's bill was filled with "legal defects." It was the latest in a string of missives from Miles opposing the supervisor's effort to create simple local standards for evaluating whether projects truly harm the environment.

"We've been working with everyone who wants to work with us, and Mary is one of the outliers," said Bill Barnes, legislative aide to Alioto-Pier. "Others have weighed in with things they'd like to see changed, and we've made revisions. But, with all due respect to Ms. Miles, she's simply opposed to it."

This summer a judge lifted an injunction that had banned San Francisco from implementing a bike-lane plan developed in 2005.

The delay began with Miles' March 2005 appeal of a city decision to proceed with the bike plan -- a decision made without a study proving new bike lanes wouldn't harm the environment.

In hear appeal, Miles complained local officials had violated environmental law by failing to adequately consider the theory that bike lanes increase pollution because they cause cars to go slower. When her appeal failed, Miles sued in protest. A judge sided with Miles, ruling that the city couldn't install improvements benefiting cyclists until officials had conducted a years-long study examining supposed bike-lane/smog theory.

But she might not have had a basis for a lawsuit had Alioto-Pier's legislation been in place. Miles appealed more than two months after the city decided to prodeed with the bike lane without conducting extensive environmental review.

"Under Supervisor Alioto-Pier's legislation, the appellants would have 20 days to challenge the determination," said Barnes, adding that currently there is no fixed time limit on appeals. Miles, therefore, "would have been untimely and the exemption would have stood."

The bill might also be a boon for residents wishing to put a porch on their house without living in fear that a hostile neighbor might delay their project for æons. (The bill wouldn't likely affect Supervisor Chris Daly's threat to use environmental laws to block San Francisco plans to host the America's Cup. Development on San Francisco Bay is overseen by the state-chartered Bay Conservation and Development Commission, not San Francisco.)

"People can go through a whole process to remove a tree," Barnes said. "Then a neighbor files an appeal that goes to the Board of Supervisors.

Meanwhile, as Miles wrote in her Sept. 27 letter, "The proposed ordinance violates the California Environmental Quality Act, as well as fundamental requirements of due process. Please reject the proposed ordinance."

Alioto-Pier plans on meeting soon with Board President David Chiu.

"We'll put the stakeholders together to hammer something out," Barnes said.

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