Mercury News Editorial
When the CEO of the area’s Building and Construction Trades Council stood before the San Jose City Council last week to explain his challenge to a new downtown high-rise based on environmental law, he didn’t even bother pretending that the project might foul the water or air. No, the first point Neil Struthers made was about the developer’s choice of workers.
“Bringing in subcontractors who bring in lesser-skilled lower-paid workers from Sacramento hurts all workers in the construction industry,” Struthers said before launching into some flimsy environmental and procedural criticisms.
This highly technical appeal is relatively minor; it won’t stop construction of the project vital to downtown San Jose. But it’s a textbook case of “greenmail” — the misuse of the California Environmental Quality Act to harass builders and sometimes cities to win concessions unrelated to the environment. In this case, Struthers wants an agreement from the developer of One South Market to use only union labor.
Cases like this are the reason many businesses, housing advocates and other groups hoped the Legislature would update the 43-year-old law to return to its environmental intent. Earlier this year that seemed possible, with Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Leader John Perez all sounding positive.
But opposition from labor and environmental groups has derailed meaningful reform. Steinberg sponsored a measure, Senate Bill 731, that passed the Senate, but it falls far short. Unless it is substantially improved, the Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown should reject it.
The 1970 law signed by Ronald Reagan requires studies of the environmental effects of proposed development and requires builders, whether public or private, to mitigate negative effects or show why they can’t. But the law today is often used by NIMBYs to oppose development they don’t like, by businesses to prevent competition and by labor to pressure builders to use union workers.
SB 731 aims to reduce CEQA barriers to so-called infill projects in already developed areas. Encouraging infill is a priority of Steinberg’s and of ours, but that’s too narrow a focus. Other projects that help the environment should also be protected from trumped-up objections, including wind and solar farms in undeveloped areas. These projects are essential for the state to meet its aggressive greenhouse-gas reduction requirements.
The bill should also require disclosure of those who are behind CEQA challenges, much like rules for political campaigns. These kinds of regulations are imperfect, but the goal of transparency is important. The public can be affected by these appeals — sometimes for the better, sometimes not — as much as by public policy, and disclosure would help clarify whether the environment really is at the root of objections.
Reform proponents say some language in the existing bill could invite even more pointless litigation and drag the process out further. Steinberg should close those loopholes.
Brown’s administration has proposed other important additions to the bill, including changing the way the state analyzes transportation impacts. Steinberg told us he thinks he can incorporate many of these; that’s good news.
He has been bickering with reform proponents who complain they’ve been left out of the talks while labor and environmental groups have had his ear. The current bill certainly supports that complaint.
Steinberg says he has no interest in helping to build more big box stores or auto malls. Fair enough. But SB 731 won’t even do much of what he says he wants to accomplish. In the three weeks left in this legislative session, Steinberg needs to turn the bill into something worthwhile, even if it’s not as comprehensive as necessary. And everybody needs to be at the table.