Needed: Development Reform in California

| Wed Jun. 20, 2012 10:47 AM EDT

The Los Angeles city council has unanimously approved a plan to allow higher density construction around metro stations and bus routes in Hollywood, and wealthy residents in the nearby Hollywood Hills aren't happy about it. So naturally they're threatening to sue the city for "failing to conduct an adequate environmental review." As Matt Yglesias points out, this has become sort of an all-purpose vehicle for halting any development that happens to personally annoy people with the money to bring long and expensive court cases:

This is a splended example of a serious and growing problem in California—spurious bad faith environmental review. There's no real environmental issue here at all except for the fact that at the margin building a denser urban form in LA will reduce pressure to sprawl outward. Landowners in an adjacent neighborhood just don't want to allow more people to enjoy the virtues of Southern California living. It's their perogative to be jerks about this if they want to, but it's disastrous to have environmental regulations become a free-floating pretext for anyone to stop anything. You can't build a greener economy without building some stuff—new sources of power, new transmission lines for the electricity, different kinds of transportation infrastructure, houses and shops near that infrastructure—but too many states' environmental policies are just generically supportive of the status quo.

This affects ordinary development, of course, but it goes beyond that. Solar and wind installations face the same problem. The LA-San Francisco bullet train is facing the same problem. A new subway extension through Beverly Hills is facing the same problem. I don't know for sure about other states, but in California at least, this reached epidemic proportions years ago. It's all but impossible to build anything that's opposed by rich people or rich interest groups.

The flip side of this, though, is that buried inside all of the nonsense, the complaining groups sometimes have some legitimate beefs. Without access to a sympathetic court, builders would routinely run roughshod over perfectly sensible rules, submitting environmental reviews that merely go through the motions and fail to address genuine problems. This is most common in poorer areas of the city that don't have the resources to fight back against sandbagging developers.

I don't know enough about this stuff to offer up any kind of solution, but it sure seems like we need one. These fights can last years and kill off valuable development right along with the crap. Can anybody point to some reasonable reform proposals that might streamline development in California and elsewhere without turning the state over to development interests lock, stock, and barrel?