First-ever analysis of 3 years of CEQA lawsuits demonstrates law frequently abused to stop projects crucial to meeting California’s environmental, social equity, and economic policies
Sacramento — In a first-of-its-kind analysis, the law firm Holland & Knight recently conducted a comprehensive review of more than 600 lawsuits filed under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) at the local, regional or state agency level during a three year study period (2010 – 2012). The analysis, entitled “In the Name of the Environment: How Litigation Abuse Under the California Environmental Quality Act Undermines California’s Environmental, Social Equity and Economic Priorities – and Proposed Reforms to Protect the Environment from CEQA Litigation Abuse,” was based on all CEQA lawsuit petitions provided to the California Attorney General’s office over the three year study period.
The findings of this exhaustive analysis run counter to the common perception that CEQA litigation is primarily used to benefit the environment. In fact, the numbers show that CEQA lawsuits most frequently target infill housing projects, public works projects such as transit, renewable energy projects and other critical projects California needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The law is often used for non-environmental reasons and in ways that actually harm important environmental objectives, like building renewable energy, transit and infill housing. You can read our executive summary for more detail or read the full study on Holland & Knight’s website.
This new analysis provides clear and quantifiable metrics that demonstrate CEQA litigation is most often used:
- Against taxpayer-funded public works projects, not “business” or “developer” projects. Nearly half of all CEQA lawsuits (49%) were filed against taxpayer-funded projects for which there was no private sector applicant.
- Against infill projects in urban areas. Of the CEQA lawsuits that targeted infill or greenfield development projects, 80% of CEQA lawsuits targeted infill projects.
- Against housing, especially in established communities. The most frequently challenged category of private sector project was housing (21%), and nearly half (45%) of these CEQA housing lawsuits challenged the types of affordable housing and other multi-family (apartment, condominium and mixed use) projects that are critically needed to address housing affordability, are required by state housing and general plans laws, are subsidized by state or federal taxpayer funding, and are key to achieving the state’s regional greenhouse gas reduction targets for the land use and transportation sectors.
- Against projects designed to achieve critical environmental objectives. In fact, for utility/industrial projects, the top target of CEQA lawsuits were new and retrofitted clean energy projects like solar plants – and for infrastructure projects, the top target of CEQA lawsuits were transit projects.
- Against projects that have already undergone an earlier environmental review process, most often a full Environmental Impact Report. Duplicative CEQA lawsuits are especially frequent for urban projects and plans, with some challenged projects emerging from a dozen or more CEQA lawsuits filed over a period of nearly 20 years.
“CEQA litigation abuse is real, it is harming people—especially the poor, the working class and the young—and it is hindering rather than advancing critical environmental priorities,” said Jennifer Hernandez, the head of Holland & Knight’s West Coast Land Use and Environmental practice and lead author of the study. “CEQA litigation abuse also allows parties seeking to advance non-environmental objectives to anonymously sue—again in the name of the ‘environment’—to gain leverage against competitors, employers and taxpayers.”
The Study also confirms that CEQA litigation is only rarely used by well-known national and statewide environmental advocacy groups like the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Audubon Society. In fact, only 13% of CEQA lawsuits are filed by these environmental groups – with the plurality (45%) filed by an assortment of “associations” which do not need to disclose either the existence or interests of “members” and individuals. Follow-up investigations into these anonymous “associations” revealed widespread abuse of CEQA for non-environmental purposes by business competitors, labor unions, “greenmail” lawyers seeking financial settlements, and Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) groups on the losing end of votes by elected officials or residents.
“CEQA is an important law that has provided many benefits to Californians and our environment,” said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments. “But this analysis shows what we have always known, that the law is also being used and abused to stop environmentally beneficial projects. These projects are needed to meet new climate change policies, and these lawsuits frequently have little to do with protecting the environment. As lawmakers continue to grapple with the challenge of modernizing CEQA, we hope the findings of this study can inform the debate and underscore the need to fix the law.”
“The Bay Area is in the midst of a housing crisis and this study offers real insight into how CEQA has become a leading tool that groups abuse, often for non-environmental reasons, in order to block housing projects throughout the state,” said Matt Regan, Senior Vice President with the Bay Area Council. “We urge the legislature to take the results of this study, and the findings in a recent similar study conducted by the LAO, seriously and put in the hard work to make this law work in a way that continues to protect the environment, but doesn’t stymie smart growth.”
For an executive summary, please visit http://ceqaworkinggroup.com/?p=1238.
The full report can be found at: http://issuu.com/hollandknight/docs/ceqa_litigation_abuseissuu?e=16627326/14197714 and Holland & Knight’s press release can be found at: http://www.hklaw.com/news/Holland-Knight-Study-Uncovers-Widespread-CEQA-Litigation-Abuse-08-04-2015/.
About the CEQA Working Group: The CEQA Working Group is a broad coalition of local government, affordable housing, business, agriculture, education and other organizations advocating for moderate reforms to CEQA that will preserve its original intent – environmental protection and public disclosure – while eliminating some of the misuses of CEQA that hurt job creation, community renewal and our environment. www.ceqaworkinggroup.com
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