Recently, U-T San Diego editorialized about one individual misusing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in an attempt to block a city of Oceanside approved plan to allow Waste Management to replace 42 diesel-fueled garbage trucks with clean-burning natural gas vehicles that would reduce air pollution in our region by the equivalent of removing 3,100 cars from the roads. Unfortunately, the Oceanside case is not an isolated example of California’s signature environmental law, CEQA, actually being used to the detriment of our environment and our region. A CEQA lawsuit has also indefinitely blocked implementation of the San Diego Association of Government’s recently developed plan guiding future growth in our region that is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 14 percent, preserve more than half the region’s land as open space, and invest twice as much in pollution-reducing mass transit as roads and freeways.
All over California, there are examples of CEQA being abused for non-environmental reasons to block projects that would actually benefit the environment – from solar power plants to infill housing, from pollution-reducing mass transit to bike paths. In fact, according to a legal review of recent CEQA cases at the Appellate or Supreme Court levels, more than half (59 percent) were filed against infill projects and 36 percent were filed against public works projects like schools, universities or roads. With abuses like these common throughout California, the time has come to modernize CEQA to ensure it is fulfilling its original intent – environmental protection – while stamping out abuses of the law hindering responsible growth and job creation. Gov. Jerry Brown has long advocated for reform, calling it “the Lord’s work” and referring to the law as a “vampire.” We want to thank Gov. Brown for his continued call for CEQA reform and his pledge to try to work out a solution while he is governor.
Senate President Darrell Steinberg recently began this process by introducing Senate Bill 731, legislation that sets up the initial framework for CEQA modernization discussions. SB 731 includes language expressing the intent to ensure CEQA works to protect the environment, while stamping out abuses that are slowing the environmentally desirable projects, jobs and economic growth we need. We commend Sen. Steinberg for his leadership. Progressing from SB 731’s current intent language to crafting actual legislation that will modernize CEQA to accomplish its stated goals will not be easy and will take a great deal of time and participation from diverse stakeholders. When CEQA was passed in the 1970s, California didn’t have the plethora of environmental laws and regulations that now exist. In the 43 years since CEQA was passed, more than 120 additional federal, state, and local land-use laws have been passed to protect our environment and regulate growth. We’ve passed laws like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, and much, much more. California today has the toughest environmental protection standards in the nation and even the world.
Compliance with these stringent environmental thresholds should mean something. SB 731 should be carefully crafted to ensure that projects that “play by the rules” and conform with California’s stringent body of environmental laws and that meet a community’s extensive environmental plans and locally-adopted standards are not held up by meritless litigation that has little to do with the environment. Those opposed to CEQA modernization claim the law works well and no changes are needed. But case after case of abuse of CEQA clearly demonstrates a need for reform. Those opposed to changing CEQA also claim that those of us advocating for reform are trying to weaken our environmental standards.
That’s simply not the case.
CEQA modernization legislation can and should protect the most important parts of the law that are working well. CEQA should continue to serve as a process that requires open and public dialogue about proposed projects, that serves as a forum for community members to have a voice in local decision making, and that requires project proponents to mitigate their environmental impacts. But when CEQA is abused as a blunt instrument to stop cleaner burning trucks, to stop investments in pollution reducing mass transit – clearly it’s time for some reform.
Sanders is president & CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce; Schultz, former chair of San Diego Planning Commission, is senior counsel at Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff & Holtz, focusing on land use, affordable housing and sustainable development.