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 Michael 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 over-arching, general EIRs when they make their General Plans or make large zoning changes. These EIRs can cover the projects that take place within their scope.
Michael Goolsby’s CEQA grift is nothing new. It builds upon decades of litigation and appeals filed by neighborhood groups, environmental organizations, and unions. The process is relatively simple. 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 EIR failed to account for some factor or another. At this point the filer of the appeal is free to make whatever demands they want from the project sponsors and in return the filer can offer to withdraw their appeal. 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. Michael Goolsby is different. His demand is simple, he just wants a payout.
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. San Jose Inside looked into it and found an instance where Goolsby was paid $25,000 by both the City of Santa Ana and by a developer, Net Development Company. San Jose Inside also uncovered another instance in Redwood City where a developer contributed $50,000 to a larger fund that was used to pay off Goolsby. There are countless other cases where it is impossible to know the exact terms of Goolsby’s settlements with developers. Thankfully, there also many where the developers refused to negotiate.
This brings us to the present. Goolsby, through Better Neighborhoods Incorporated, has filed an appeal in Vacaville against a proposed 245 unit apartment complex. The appeal alleges that the city has failed to adequately study the impacts of the project. Specifically BNI claims that there is 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 are all false. There is 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 do 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 pay off was too steep and refused to settle with him. As a result, the appeal continues to move forward and will be heard by the Vacaville City Council on May 14th. They can decide to grant or deny the appeal. If they deny the appeal, as the City Planning Department has recommended, the project will move forward and Michael Goolsby will be forced to move on to his next victim.
EDIT (5/15/2019): The Vacaville City Council voted on May 14th to deny the appeal. The project will proceed and Michael Goolsby will have to walk away without a pay off.