“If you build it they will come” is the famous line from “Field of Dreams.”
But if Kevin Costner had been restricted by CEQA requirements, the 1989 let’s-build-a-ballpark-in-the-cornfield movie would’ve been a different story altogether.
CEQA, or the California Environmental Quality Act, turned out to be the special guest at last week’s North Bay Housing Summit, where more than 300 stakeholders gathered at the Petaluma Sheraton for the North Bay Leadership Council’s event – put together in response to what NBLC officials have called a housing shortage crisis.
CEQA has emerged in recent years as something of a whipping boy for critics who say the law’s strict environmental review process stymies even environmentally sensitive development – in that legal challenges to CEQA-required environmental impact reports are frequently used to tie up housing proposals in the courts. It’s a move, critics say, less about genuine environmental concerns than simply intended to drain developers of time and money – and ultimately the desire – to see such projects through.
Like it or not, the “CEQA move” works. Sonoma Raceway’s recent bid to adjust its use permit drove barely a single lap before venue officials cooled their engines in the face of daunting legal challenges.
And many longtime champions of CEQA are now coming around to the idea that all too often its environmental protection ethos is being used as a property values protection ethos – by those “conservationists” most interested in conserving their quality of life in and around their property limits.
The California Environment Quality Act was groundbreaking state legislation when it passed in 1970, a mere eight years after Rachel Carson’s game-changing book “Silent Spring” brought the conservation movement to the mainstream. CEQA’s mandate was simple: any proposed project that could alter its surrounding environment would require an independent report on the project’s plan for mitigating that environmental footprint.
But over the course of the four decades since its enactment, a flurry of other environmental safeguards have come down the federal and state legislation pipe – many for good reason, but a mishmash nonetheless – making it relatively simple to challenge developments via claims of flawed EIRs. Concern over using CEQA to limit development – as opposed to ensuring development was eco-friendly, the law’s original intention – was pretty much a non-issue in the conservation-minded North Bay, until it became clear it was severely hampering another, perhaps more pressing, issue for local progressives: affordable housing.
At the Housing Summit, in fact, Sonoma County 2nd District Supervisor David Rabbitt called CEQA “one of the most abused acts” to come out of Sacramento.
“The idea of CEQA is a great one – in which people should be made aware of environmental impacts from any development project,” Rabbitt said. “But there is no such thing as a project that will have no footprint and CEQA should not be a tool to stop all projects from moving forward.”
Susan Gorin, 1st District Supe, stopped short of pinning it all on CEQA challenges, saying the county can’t “build its way” out of an affordable-housing shortage. “We need to elevate wages,” Gorin said.
She’s certainly right about that – and the county may be addressing that soon when it considers a $15 an hour living wage ordinance. But that doesn’t mean CEQA couldn’t use an update by the state Legislature. One idea to discourage frivolous CEQA lawsuits would be to allow defendants to recover attorney fees from plaintiffs in cases of particularly egregious challenges. (Currently only plaintiffs can recover attorney fees.)
Another proposal that deserves attention is to limit the standing of such lawsuits to litigation focused on environmental and planning law.
An Environmental Quality Act with teeth is a must, and there are ways to make CEQA stronger without gutting it.
Because if things stay as they are, to borrow another phrase from the Costner movie, Sonoma may never “go the distance” it needs to emerge from its “housing crisis.”