As mayors of two of California’s largest cities, we’ve joined with other large city mayors including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, and Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, to call for a modernization of one of California’s oldest and most important environmental laws, the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.
As mayors, we are responsible for ensuring the economic vitality of our communities, while also preserving our natural treasures. We believe sensible changes to CEQA can preserve the law’s original intent — environmental protection and full public disclosure and participation — while stamping out abuses to CEQA which aim to slow or stop worthy projects from proceeding.
For more than 40 years, CEQA has served as an important tool to ensure local governments have the information and tools needed to evaluate proposed developments, to protect our local communities, and to allow for citizen involvement in local land-use decisions. CEQA also ensures that the environmental impacts of new projects are mitigated.
However, today CEQA is too-often used by those who simply seek to disrupt or complicate projects, oftentimes for reasons that have nothing to do with protecting the environment. These lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits are sometimes used to stop exactly the type of growth that we as local officials are trying to promote — infill development, expansion and improvement of public transit and bicycle facilities, affordable housing, schools, hospitals, and all manner of public works. In fact, according to a review of CEQA cases from 1997 to 2012 that wound up at the appellate or California Supreme Court, 59 percent were filed against infill projects and 36 percent were filed against public works projects like schools, universities or roads.
AB32 and SB375 specifically require that cities and counties take steps to encourage new development near transit and to discourage sprawl. Further, infill projects in these locations are often built on sites that were previously developed, thereby avoiding many environmental impacts created by development on greenfield sites. Yet, CEQA does not address how we’ve come to view infill as more environmentally friendly than suburban sprawl. Nor does it address the ability to challenge infill projects that are considered categorically exempt from environmental review with relatively little evidence as to why they do not qualify for an exemption. CEQA challenges also unnecessarily drive up costs for taxpayers — by forcing public resources to be spent defending against lawsuits and by delaying public works projects.
It’s time to update CEQA so that it fulfills its original intent rather than be used as a means of delay or obfuscation. There is also great potential when undertaking this modernization to create a statute that incentivizes local governments to do the right thing – especially when it comes to in-fill development and transportation infrastructure projects in an urban setting.
We are encouraged by the dialogue in Sacramento, including commitments from the governor, Senate President Darrell Steinberg, and other legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle.
As legislators debate CEQA reform, they should recognize the important role that local governments and local elected officials play in shaping the local economy. Local officials need to be given the tools to encourage the right type of growth, while reducing barriers that cause unpredictability and jeopardize taxpayer dollars.
Antonio Villaraigosa is the mayor of Los Angeles. Chuck Reed is the mayor of San Jose.
Read full oped here.