CEQA battle: Needless delays vs. do no harm
The battle lines are emerging following two key sentences uttered by Gov. Jerry Brown in his mid-January state of the state speech.
“We also need to rethink and streamline our regulatory procedures, particularly the California Environmental Quality Act,” he said. “Our approach needs to be based more on consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays.”
A huge amount of Internet chatter immediately focused on those 34 words, which called to mind Brown’s oft-quoted sentiment, “I’ve never seen a CEQA exemption I didn’t like.”
That feeling stems from his eight years as mayor of Oakland, where, among other projects, his efforts to start a military academy for inner-city youth suffered CEQA-related delays.
Brown’s speech spurred enthusiasm from major business groups who have never cared for the sometimes-voluminous environmental impact reports (EIRs) required by the 1970 law for almost all significant projects. Carl Guardino, head of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, summarized popular reform sentiment, saying, “CEQA is a great law that has unfortunately been misused, discouraging investments in our communities that not only foster economic growth and job creation, but help us meet our environmental and greenhouse gas reduction goals.”
When business leaders say CEQA discourages investment and has been misused, they mean there have been times when opponents of projects challenged the adequacy of EIRs and delayed things for weeks, months or years.
Businesses sometimes also use CEQA to hold up their competitors’ projects and labor unions have been said to threaten developers with CEQA lawsuits and delays if they use non-union labor.
But CEQA has also created open space and parks, as developers can use these kinds of amenities to mitigate some ill effects of their projects.
It has helped cities and neighborhoods limit building heights and forced builders to provide adequate parking, organize carpools and expand streets and public transit.
CEQA has not prevented major projects like AT&T Park in San Francisco, the San Francisco 49ers new stadium under construction in Santa Clara and the Staples Center and the LA Live complex in Los Angeles.
And whatever change Brown seeks will likely meet resistance from environmentalists in the legislature. State Senate President Darrell Steinberg and fellow Democratic Sens. Noreen Evans of Santa Rosa and Michael Rubio of Bakersfield, for example, told a meeting of the state Planning and Conservation League that they will approach any change with a “first do no harm” test.
Like Steinberg, Democratic state Assembly Speaker John Perez has said he’s open to discussing CEQA changes that might make the law less of a tool for manipulative special interests. Perez says he wants full public discussion of proposed changes before allowing any votes.
It’s not certain yet just where the CEQA reform effort will lead, but momentum for change has probably reached the point of being unstoppable. The remaining question is how extreme the change will be.