San Jose Mercury News Editorial: CEQA Reform Bill Doesn’t Go Far Enough, 8/20/13

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August 20  |  Editorials, News  |   afrew

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.

Read full editorial here.

San Francisco Chronicle: CEQA reform bill falls short, 8/17/13

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August 19  |  Editorials, News  |   afrew

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has consistently promised to find “the elusive middle ground” between business groups that believe the 40-year-old California Environmental Quality Act is “irretrievably broken” and certain environmental and labor groups that are determined to block any change.

Regrettably, Steinberg seems to be wavering on his pledge for significant reform.

The version of Steinberg’s SB731 that advanced out of the Assembly Local Government Committee last week falls measurably short of what should be the ultimate goal of any CEQA reform: to reduce the duplication of project reviews and to stop the exploitation of an environmental law to achieve objectives (such as unions using lawsuit threats to coerce labor agreements) that have nothing to do with the environment.

In a most egregious twist, CEQA lawsuits have even been used to slow or stop environmentally friendly projects, such as the four-year legal battle against a San Francisco plan to add 34 miles of bike lanes. A more recent example: A labor union’s attempt to stop a downtown San Jose high-rise under CEQA, in part to pressure the developers not to use out-of-area subcontractors. Mayor Chuck Reed last week called that appeal, which the City Council rejected, “just an abuse of the environmental process.”

Steinberg’s revised bill makes only modest changes in the law, and limits them to infill development projects. He said SB731 has been narrowed to focus on the question “What are the regulatory obstacles to building more infill?” Promotion of infill development is the overarching goal of his landmark 2006 bill (SB375) to encourage cities and counties to take the impact on greenhouse gases into account in planning decisions.

As Steinberg put it, there was no appetite in Sacramento for easing environmental laws to promote development of auto malls, suburban sprawl or industrial plants. It’s a fair point.

But the latest version of SB731 misses the mark in three important ways.

— It fails to require forthright disclosure of the real interests behind CEQA lawsuits. The public, elected representatives and the courts deserve to know when there might be an ulterior motive behind a lawsuit brought on environmental grounds. In one notorious case, a San Jose gas station owner used CEQA to challenge a competitor’s proposal to add three pumps – adding $500,000 to the cost of the project.

— The focus on infill development, while worthy, does not cover other types of environmentally friendly projects that have been subject to CEQA abuse. Examples include renewable-resource projects, mass transit and myriad forms of mixed-use development.

— The bill includes requirements that could lead to new avenues for CEQA litigation, such as a requirement that government agencies prepare an annual report on a project’s compliance with mitigation measures. Some critics, most notably a coalition that includes the California Chamber of Commerce, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., have suggested that the revised SB731 is “worse than current law.”

Gov. Jerry Brown, who encountered the excesses of CEQA when trying to breathe life into downtown as mayor of Oakland, has called reform of the law “the Lord’s work.” He should insist that he will not sign any CEQA “reform” that falls short of significant.

Steinberg clearly has grown frustrated with the demands of the business groups. “If you’re an all-or-nothing coalition, then you need to find a different author, a different bill, a different year,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Still, Steinberg is a leader, and one of the Capitol’s premier problem solvers, and he should get everyone back at the table – including the business groups, which have been feeling shut out – to find the elusive middle ground that can serve the economic and environmental objectives that are being undermined by CEQA abuses.


Read full article here.




Los Angeles Times: Alter CEQA But Don’t Weaken It, 5/20/13

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May 20  |  Editorials, News  |   afrew

By the Times Editorial Board

Does California’s signature environmental law protect the state’s air, water and wilderness by acting as a check on runaway projects proposed by overzealous developers? Or does it encourage baseless lawsuits that unfairly delay and even derail worthwhile projects that could provide badly needed jobs and housing for Californians?

Actually, it does both. The 43-year-old California Environmental Quality Act, passed to inform and empower the public, requires developers to disclose the environmental effects of their projects in detailed reports and to mitigate any harm caused. Over the years, the law has successfully compelled many builders to improve their proposals, but it also has been used at times as a tool to stop development by opponents whose objectives have nothing to do with protecting the environment.

Perhaps the poster child for what riles CEQA’s critics is a gas station in San Jose whose owner won city approval to add a couple of pumps. A CEQA lawsuit brought by a competing gas station at the same intersection claimed that the extra pumps would create too much traffic — and held up the modest expansion for years.

Critics also point to what they call not-in-my-backyard lawsuits brought under CEQA to kill construction of housing for low-income senior citizens on a dilapidated corner in Berkeley, to keep a school from being renovated in El Cerrito and, last year, to keep the so-called subway to the sea from tunneling along its most logical route under Beverly Hills High School Competitors have filed CEQA lawsuits to stop businesses from opening or expanding, and unions have filed suits on supposedly environmental grounds, only to withdraw them as soon as a labor agreement is reached with the developer.

At the same time, the law’s supporters point to major successes: CEQA lawsuits have allowed thousands of acres to be preserved in the Santa Monica Mountains at no cost to taxpayers; have persuaded Stockton to reject further unchecked sprawl in favor of smarter infill development and increased public transportation; and have resulted in an agreement by a Bay Area development company to modify its plans for a major project to prevent millions of gallons of sewage from spilling into San Francisco Bay.

Reforming the law, then, requires striking a delicate balance between preserving its protections and curbing its unnecessary job-killing costs and delays. A bill that goes before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday might not resolve all the valid complaints about the law, but it moves the state in the right direction. Written by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), SB 731 tackles some of the common, legitimate complaints about the law. Most CEQA lawsuits involve relatively small infill projects — construction on an area that is surrounded by developed land — and many of those lawsuits aren’t over air, water or wilderness but are about issues such as traffic, noise and parking. Under the bill, standards would have to be set for these land-use issues by the state or locality, and infill projects that meet the standards would be exempt from lawsuits challenging them on those grounds.

Most CEQA lawsuits involve relatively small infill projects — construction on an area that is surrounded by developed land — and many of those lawsuits aren’t over air, water or wilderness but are about issues such as traffic, noise and parking. Under the bill, standards would have to be set for these land-use issues by the state or locality, and infill projects that meet the standards would be exempt from lawsuits challenging them on those grounds.

The bill would also provide $30 million for planning agencies to update their zoning and development plans. Once those plans have been approved, local construction projects that meet their standards would not have to go through the entire environmental review process all over again.

The bill could also shorten delays by requiring government agencies to keep the documents on a given project up to date and readily available, if the developer pays the cost. Currently, it can take planning departments six months to a year to gather such records after a lawsuit has been filed.

In striking its balance, Steinberg’s bill leans in the direction of environmental protection rather than rewriting the law to open the construction floodgates, and that’s fine. Builders see this as minor progress, and there may be further emendations to be discussed in the years ahead. But better to err on the side of caution, measure the results of this modest reform and then see what, if anything, needs modification, rather than rush ahead and possibly undermine the law’s environmental protections.

Read Full Article Here



Los Angeles Daily News Opinion Staff: CEQA reform moves forward but real obstacles lie ahead,5/2/13

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May 6  |  Editorials, News  |   user

Many hurdles remain between here and meaningful reform of the California Environmental Quality Act, namely the obstacle that a Democrat-led state Legislature is bound to face when it defies labor unions.

But state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg’s bill to modernize CEQA has taken a step toward passage by winning approval from the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.

Coincidentally or not, part of the bill would help Sacramento build a new sports arena and hold on to the National Basketball Association’s Kings, who could move to Seattle.

The CEQA reform has been a big topic here, with L.A.’s Antonio Villaraigosa and other California mayors expressing support for it in principle in a recent op-ed piece.

Serious changes are needed to stop local governments, agricultural land owners, business rivals and labor unions from exploiting CEQA to block or delay projects they don’t like for reasons that may have nothing to do with concerns about the effects on air, water, wildlife and residents’ quality of life.

Will lawmakers have the courage to get it done? They’ve taken a step, but only a step.

Read Full Article Here

Bakersfield Californian Editorial: Progress on correcting CEQA’s flaws, 5/3/13

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May 6  |  Editorials, News  |   user

By The Bakersfield Californian

Are the days of using the landmark California Environmental Quality Act as a political club to fatally bludgeon development about to end? Maybe.

The state Senate Environmental Quality Committee on Wednesday passed a measure by President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D Sacramento, that, if passed by the Legislature, will go a long way toward ending CEQA abuse while preserving its most basic, important features.

The Steinberg bill has received a lukewarm reception, with some Democrats calling it too broad and comprehensive a change, and groups that support a CEQA rewrite indicating it needs more work. Steinberg’s proposal takes aim at what has been the 43-year-old law’s area of greatest contention: its use as a legal hammer to stall and ultimately kill projects for reasons other than dire environmental impact.

Opponents use CEQA to litigate projects into submission. The ripple effect can be extensive, with a chief casualty being job creation. One of the more famous cases of so-called “project killing” under the guise of CEQA review was a proposal by filmmaker George Lucas.

According to the CEQA Working Group, a coalition of business groups, chambers of commerce and economic development groups, the project underwent the necessary reviews and then secured approval by the Marin County Planning Commission, but local homeowners stalled the project by filing an appeal alleging CEQA violations.

After 27 years of courtroom maneuvering — 27 years! — Lucas and his Skywalker Properties eventually gave up. Marin lost 800 potential jobs and millions of dollars in property tax revenue. Lucas was prepared to spend as much as $70 million in environmental restoration costs to the immediate area, which were also lost.

One key provision of the Steinberg proposal includes changes to filing processes that would speed up CEQA-related lawsuits. It is the long legal delays that play a huge role in abandonment by developers. Other provisions would cut the red tape for large-scale clean-energy projects, establish traffic and noise standards, and exempt groups from suing under CEQA simply because they don’t like the visual aesthetics of a proposal.

CEQA is a critical and necessary piece of legislation that protects California’s varied and fragile environment and ecosystem from abuse, overdevelopment and environmental harm. But when NIMBYs (not in my backyard) use it to stall projects that do not negatively impact the land, CEQA has been misused. Steinberg’s proposal isn’t quite ready to go — he says he hopes to reach an acceptable middle ground. But, based on his initial draft, it will be a significant improvement on the borderline dysfunction of the original.


Read Full Article Here


U-T San Diego Editorial: RIP for Regulatory Reform?, 4/21/13

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April 22  |  Editorials, News  |   afrew

With California’s unemployment among the highest in the nation for more than three years, state leaders have repeatedly offered “I feel your pain”-style speeches to jobless residents. Last year, they started to be more substantive. Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate President Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, each denounced the perils of excessive regulation. Brown called for major changes in the California Environmental Quality Act. The state’s landmark environmental law has become an all-purpose tool for anyone with an agenda to block construction, business expansion and much more. Even completely groundless CEQA litigation can tie projects up for years.

But last week, the governor abruptly announced that CEQA reform was off the table for 2013. Steinberg says Brown is wrong to give up. Sacramento insiders say he didn’t want a fight he couldn’t win – and that most legislative Democrats are siding with the green groups and the unions who like the CEQA status quo, having used the law so effectively over the years to impede business interests and to legally extort payoffs. This is appalling. Here’s the message from state Democratic lawmakers, green crusaders and union members to the 3 million Californians who are unemployed, can only find part-time work or who have given up looking: Tough luck for you – but at least we’re employed.

Read full editorial here. 

Investor’s Business Daily, Editorial: California Environmental Law Needs Reform, Not Excuses, 4/18/13

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April 19  |  Editorials, News  |   user

California: The governor has talked about fixing a state environmental law that has turned into an all-purpose litigation machine. Now he needs to act, even if his party stands in the way.

 Ask business owners what they hate most about the Golden State, and you’re likely to get an earful about regulation. Taxes, rents, utilities and housing are all costly, but they are at least predictable.

 What hurts most is the threat of the unknown — being blindsided by lawsuits or watching projects get mired in unforeseen delays. California is hassle central, and everyone pays the cost.

 One law in particular, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), exemplifies what’s wrong with the state’s regulatory regime.

 Enacted in 1970 to protect the environment from reckless development in a fast-growing state, CEQA has morphed into a “gotcha” law.

 It enables anyone to force just about any project into litigation on a vague premise that environmental impacts have not been sufficiently accounted for.

Often the issue is not the environment at all.

 Unions use CEQA to force developers into accepting project labor agreements.

 The Los Angeles Times notes that a group called California Unions for Reliable Energy “has filed dozens of environmental lawsuits that can delay construction of power plants, only to drop its objections once favorable labor agreements are secured.”

 CEQA appeals are also a favorite tool of the not-in-my-backyard crowd, used to block affordable housing, rail lines and other development meant to make cities more livable.

In fact, the law may be doing more now to impede the green agenda than to advance it.

 Jennifer Hernandez, a longtime San Francisco environmental lawyer, says most of the published CEQA decisions by California’s highest courts involve the anti-sprawl strategy of “infill” — directing development to vacant areas within cities — and public transit.

 CEQA is also a threat to high-speed rail, which Gov. Jerry Brown — a liberal Democrat who has strongly supported CEQA for most of his career — likes very much.

 Brown may have had the bullet train in mind when he said last summer that CEQA reform is “the Lord’s work.” Of course, there are better reasons for reforming CEQA than to preserve a boondoggle.

As it stands, the law is a real roadblock to prosperity, as Brown knows well from his days as a development-minded mayor of Oakland seeking CEQA exemptions.

 But no zeal for reform can be found in the California Legislature, which is dominated by labor and green interests. A modest bill to make CEQA less of a problem for infill projects looks like the most that the Democratic leadership is willing to do for now.

 And Brown is starting to sound wobbly. On a trade mission to China last week, he noted the desire for change “is bigger outside the state Capitol than it is inside.” He added, “This is not something you get done in a year.”

 The problem, as he noted (and had to know all along) is the “very powerful forces” in the Democratic Party that don’t want reform. The list includes not just unions and anti-growth environmentalists, but also the lawyers who feed off CEQA suits and businesses that use CEQA as a tool to keep competition at bay.

 So yes, Brown is right that reform won’t be easy. But he had to know that going in.

 If he’s serious, he needs to be ready to take the reform cause directly to the voters, via an initiative, just as he successfully promoted a tax increase last year.

 What’s needed is clear enough. Builders ought to have a safe harbor from CEQA action if they’ve followed all applicable laws, and appeals need to be limited with deadlines and tighter rules as to who can appeal and why.

 Brown may think this year is not the best time to get something done, but the years to some aren’t going to be any better. It’s time for him to move from his favorite pastime of analysis to the tougher test of action.

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San Francisco Chronicle, Editorial: Gov. Brown shouldn’t give up on CEQA, 4/17/13

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April 17  |  Editorials, News  |   user

Gov. Jerry Brown knows as much as anyone about how exploitation of the California Environmental Quality Act can undermine environmentally friendly projects. As mayor of Oakland, Brown’s ability to exempt parts of the dilapidated downtown from the act helped accelerate its reclamation.

Brown recognized the value of the law, but also its potential to be abused by parties whose agendas have nothing to do with the environment: such as labor unions who use the threat of CEQA to extract concessions out of developers, businesses that want to frustrate their competitors or residents who object to all growth, no matter how green.

As governor, Brown has called reform of the 43-year-old law “the Lord’s work.”

Thus, it was more than a little disappointing to read Brown’s assessment that CEQA reform was unlikely to happen this year because of opposition by “key groups” within the Democratic Party. He observed that “the appetite for CEQA reform is much stronger outside the state Capitol than it is inside.”

Hold on a minute, Governor. Who’s leading and who’s following in Sacramento these days?

The prospect that legislators appear unwilling to move on one of his priorities – an idea that has strong support outside the Capitol – should cause him to seize the moment, not wave the white flag. Brown’s approval ratings are soaring; he needs to put some of that political capital into the Lord’s work – this year, not merely sometime before “I depart this stage.”

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, is showing no signs of retreat. His SB731, which would amend CEQA to allow expedited review of eco-friendly projects such as urban infill development, bike paths and renewable energy projects, is scheduled for a May 1 hearing.

“I’m not sure why the governor would say that,” Steinberg told reporters Tuesday. He said he was determined to find “that elusive middle ground” between those who “think the system is perfect” and those who think it needs to be “dramatically revamped.”

Our view is that any meaningful reform also would include a narrowing of the guidelines on who can file a CEQA lawsuit and on what grounds – or, at a minimum, timely and forthright disclosure of the interests behind such lawsuits.

While this landmark law has done much to protect California resources – forcing policymakers to consider the cumulative and localized effects of projects that might meet the letter of all other regulations on the books – it needs revision to stop these shakedowns.

Brown knows all this. He needs to take leadership on the issue.

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San Francisco Chronicle Editorial: An environmental law that needs an overhaul, 4/7/13

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April 9  |  Editorials, News  |   afrew

There is something seriously wrong with an environmental law that is being used to undermine efforts to promote urban infill development, renewable energy, bike paths and other measures to address the great climate-change challenge of the 21st century.

For all the good that has been accomplished by the California Environmental Quality Act, much has changed since Gov. Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1970.

Many elements of the act are duplicative of the 120 state and federal laws enacted in the past four decades. While there still is an important role for CEQA – and its premise that elected officials should take a wide angle look at the cumulative impact of a project that is not necessarily achieved by adherence to all other statutes on the books- the law needs to be tightened.

One concern is the frequency with which CEQA has been used to undermine clean-energy projects, or urban infill developments that are far easier on the environment than expanses of tract homes and big-box stores in the suburbs. It is outrageous that an ostensible environmental law was able to hold up San Francisco’s plan to expand bike paths for four years.

California’s legislative leaders pledged to make CEQA reform a priority this year, after a clumsy attempt to rewrite the law without sufficient vetting and public input fell apart in the final days of the 2012 session. Gov. Jerry Brown, who encountered the power and the abuse of CEQA during his efforts to breathe life and commerce into downtown Oakland when he was the city’s mayor, has called reform of the law “the Lord’s work.”

While there are several versions of CEQA reform circulating in the state Capitol, the one most likely to move is SB 731 by stage Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. He pledged to strike a balance between “those who think it shouldn’t be touched” and those who think “it’s irrevocably broken.” His version of SB731 that was introduced in February outlined a decidedly modest vision for reform that included an expedited review of eco-friendly projects such as urban infill development, bike paths and renewable energy projects. Details of the Steinberg bill are expected to emerge sometime before its first hearing on May 1.

Steinberg has made it plain that he does not want to go as far as former Senator Michael Rubio, a Shafter Democrat who resigned abruptly to work for Chevron. Rubio’s plan essentially would have exempted projects from CEQA if they met other planning and environmental rules. Leading environmental groups had signaled their disdain for the Rubio approach.

What has been missing from the CEQA reform discussion in Sacramento is a commitment to address the fundamental source of abuse: the fact that the law is used to challenge projects for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment.

The ruling Democrats are reluctant to address this issue because one of the exploiters of the CEQA process is organized labor, which has used the threat of environmental lawsuits as leverage to induce labor agreements out of developers. Some businesses have even used the law to frustrate competitors, such as the San Jose gas station that filed a lawsuit against a station that wanted to add pumps. And residents who do not want an environmentally friendly or human-services project in their neighborhood because of concern about property values have challenged them with CEQA lawsuits.

Any “CEQA reform” that does not address these abuses by narrowing the standing of who can actually bring an environmental challenge – similar to the restrictions in federal law and those of other states- is merely tinkering on the margins of the problem. At the very least, the California Legislature must require forthright disclosure of which interests are really behind each of these lawsuits.

“I’m open to that,” Steinberg said Friday, while adding that it’s a difficult area to legislate because special interests can be creative in hiding their involvement by creating front groups to carry lawsuits.

It’s time to refocus the California Environmental Quality Act on protecting the environment. It must no longer be allowed to become a free pass into court for those whose real agendas involve the ecosystems of their pocketbooks or property values.

Hostile Environment

These are among the examples of misuses of the California Environmental Quality Act:

Bike Paths: San Francisco

Project: SF supervisors approved a plan in 2005 to add 34 miles of bike lanes to city streets, install new bike racks around town and generally make cycling safer and more convenient.

CEQA play: A lawsuit was filed demanding further review of the impact of removing parking spots and traffic lanes for automobiles.

Backstory: A judge finally gave the green light to the plan, after four years of delay.

Gas Wars: San Jose

Project:  Moe’s Stop, a gas station at the corner of McKee Road and North 33rd Street, wanted to add there pumps. San Jose’s Planning Commission approved it unanimously, finding no significant environmental impacts.

CEQA play: Andy’s BP, a competing gas station, filed a lawsuit demanding that Moe’s complete a costly environmental impact report.

Upshot:  Moe’s ultimately prevailed, but delay and associated costs reached $500,000.

Senior Housing: Berkeley

Project:  A 40-unit housing complex for low-income seniors, replacing an abandoned storefront at Sacramento and Blake streets.

CEQA play: Nine neighborhood groups filed a lawsuit demanding further review, claiming the project was not “visually compatible with its surroundings.”

Backstory: The project cleared its legal hurdles and opened in November 2006, but lawsuit cost the city $2 million and added $3 million to the project’s cost. 

LA Newspaper Group Editorial: Unions pose key obstacle to CEQA reform, 4/7/13

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April 8  |  Editorials, News  |   afrew

From liberal Gov. Jerry Brown to conservative business groups, California leaders sound determined to make this the year the state finally fixes its signature environmental law. With such broad support, reform of the California Environmental Quality Act should be a fait accompli — but it’s not. The reason will be familiar and frustrating to anybody who sees the slow pace of other predicted reforms, like those needed to rein in public-employee pension costs and improve childhood education. Labor unions are among the opponents of changes they say would weaken CEQA, and unions have disproportionate influence with the Democratic elected officials who rule the Legislature.

The likely result is another year of delay on CEQA reform or a watered-down effort to make the law work to protect the environment and state residents without straying beyond its intent and needlessly impeding the economy. Before Sacramento can claim progress on the issue and Californians can be optimistic of real results, lawmakers must turn platitudes into policy by putting meat on the framework proposed by state Sen. Darrell Steinberg in a bill introduced in February.

Easy? No. It’s a complicated issue that defies simple political categorization — this is a pro-environment law signed in 1970 by Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan (to supplement a U.S. law signed by Republican President Richard Nixon) that now faces a business-backed modernization effort under Democrat Brown.

The trick will be to strike the right balance and get the details right by hearing out all sides and building the final reform legislation with full public input and scrutiny instead of hashing something together at the last minute as the Legislature has tried in the past.

The general goal must not be to prevent CEQA from achieving its noble purpose of requiring the proponents of land development and construction projects to document the expected effect on the surroundings and lay out plans to limit damage (the oft-discussed environmental impact reports, or EIRs).

The goal should be to prevent CEQA from being abused by local governments, agricultural land owners, business rivals and labor unions to block or delay projects they don’t like for reasons that may have nothing to do with concerns about the effects on air, water, wildlife and residents’ quality of life.

More specifically, this means simplifying CEQA’s provisions and removing duplications of the more than 100 other environmental laws that have been added to the state’s books in the past 42 years. This means creating more certainty about standards and procedures and reducing chances to raise last-minute challenges to bog down projects. For environmentalists, the benefit of a streamlined process is that public officials no longer would be tempted into the slimy practice of exempting favored construction projects from CEQA review, as has happened with the downtown Los Angeles and city of Industry football-stadium proposals and as Brown wanted to do with the California bullet-train plan.

Labor unions should support CEQA reform that could speed up approval for many construction projects — and thus quicken the creation of jobs. Unions say publicly they oppose reform because they want to protect the environment for their members and communities. But in fact they oppose reform because it threatens their ability to cynically use “environmental” challenges as leverage in contract negotiations or to thwart anti-union businesses. Hope that the state’s landmark environmental law would be modernized rose last summer when Brown spoke up in favor, calling CEQA reform “the Lord’s work.” Unfortunately there is no Lord on the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, and the work will have to be done by Democratic politicians under the usual pressure from their union benefactors.

Reform can — and must — get done. But a familiar obstacle remains.

Read full editorial.