The thing is, the science of predicting environmental impacts that haven't actually happened yet is highly interpretive.
"A lot of areas in EIRs are fuzzy," says Gary Binger, urban planning professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "There's a lot of subjectivity."
That's why many public agencies choose their environmental consultants carefully in order to minimize the potential for bias.
Prior to 1996, developers wanting projects approved by Santa Clara County could hire a consultant directly and submit the results of the study with their application.
"How can there be bias when that happens?" county Planner Rob Eastwood points out sarcastically. "No, just kidding."
Then-county Supervisor Joe Simitian changed the practice in 1996 in order to avoid conflict of interest and public criticism. Now county officials stick to a list of environmental consultants that are screened with questions like: "During the preparation of a Draft EIR, how would you respond if a project proponent directly pressures you to change a conclusion, minimize an impact, or otherwise influence the findings of the EIR?"
Many other cities and counties in the Bay Area follow a similar process: they hire consultants directly so the paychecks come from the public agency (although the money gets reimbursed by project applicants). The developers also have little or no input in choosing the consultant.
Of the eight cities Metro surveyed in Santa Clara County, San Jose was the only one that allowed developers to contract with consultants directly, essentially giving them the freedom to pick whomever they wanted to conduct the environmental studies.
We hope San Jose will listen!
P.S. For those wondering - yes, I've since watered the plant in the picture.