In 2017 Michael Goolsby, an attorney specializing in preying upon victims of foreclosure, faced a career crisis. He had just been disbarred by the California Bar Association after repeatedly violating rules against practicing law unlicensed in other states. With his license revoked and no prospects of having it restored, Michael could no longer practice law and faced the prospect of having to find a new career.
That is, until Goolsby stumbled into a field of law where you don’t need to be a lawyer and anyone can be an expert: CEQA!
CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, requires that local governments identify and mitigate the environmental impacts of their projects. This generally imposes a requirement that an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) be generated for any new projects.
These reports outline the environmental mitigation (toxic substance cleanup, animal relocation, habitat preservation, hydrological improvements, etc.) that must be performed for a project to move forward. Alternatively, projects can be deemed exempt from CEQA if they are already covered by an existing EIR. Cities can generate overarching EIRs when they make their General Plans or make large zoning changes. These EIRs can cover the projects that take place within their scope.
The process to appeal a CEQA review is relatively simple and lucrative. Find a project that has been deemed exempt from an EIR under CEQA, or where the EIR has been completed. Then, file an appeal claiming that the project should not be exempt or that the existing EIR failed to account for some outstanding factor.
After the appeal is filed, the appellant has leverage to make demands from the project sponsors. Neighborhood groups generally try to negotiate on the size of a particular project. Environmental organizations often try to get the developer to do more mitigation. Unions try to force developers to agree to use union labor in construction. In return for meeting their demands, the appellant will withdraw the appeal.
As an appellant, Michael Goolsby is different. His demand to project sponsors is simple, he just wants a payout.
Michael Goolsby’s CEQA grift is nothing new. San Jose Inside's reporting has reported multiple instances where Goolsby was paid off by a developer to withdraw his appeal. In June 2018, Goolsby was paid $25,000 by both the City of Santa Ana and by a developer, Net Development Company. That same year, San Jose Inside uncovered another instance in Redwood City where a developer contributed $50,000 to a larger fund that was used to pay off Goolsby.
Settlements for CEQA appeals are common but also private. This means that it’s very hard to find out exactly how much money Michael Goolsby has conned out of developers through his company, Better Neighborhoods Incorporated. There are countless other cases where it is impossible to know the exact terms of Goolsby’s settlements with developers.
Earlier this month, the Vacaville City Council heard a CEQA appeal from Michael Goolsby regarding a 245 unit apartment complex. The appeal alleged that the city has failed to adequately study the impacts of the project, specifically an active homeless encampment on the site that is not addressed in the plans, that the project will exceed the capacity of public services, and that the project and technical plans do not match.
These claims were all false. There was no homeless encampment on the site, Vacaville has more than enough public service capacity to accommodate the new units, and the plans in the city’s report did match the plans submitted by the developer.
The developer of this project, Guardian Commercial Real Estate, communicated with Michael Goolsby to discuss a possible settlement. GCRE decided that the payoff was too steep and refused to settle with him. As a result, the appeal moved forward to the Vacaville City Council.
The City Council voted on May 14th to deny the appeal and allow the project to move forward. Michael Goolsby was forced to walk away without a payoff, and move on to his next victim.
Ben Libbey is the intake paralegal at the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA), an organization that holds municipal governments accountable when acting in violation of California State laws. CaRLA pursues legal action where developers have not, bringing suit against cities that fail to approve compliant housing. You can learn more about CaRLA and read the original story here.