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Fight Over Key Environmental Law Heats Up In Sacramento

Andrew Nixon
Capital Public Radio
The California State Capitol Building in Sacramento (file photo)

 What some see as California’s most important environmental law, others see as an economic impediment. The 43-year-old California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, guides almost every development project in the state.

Governor Jerry Brown and many lawmakers say it’s time to modernize it. But As Amy Quinton reports, how to do that is a question with no easy answers.

“We’re in the park at Davis Commons, which is located in the middle of downtown Davis,” says Mark Friedman is President of Fulcrum Properties. He specializes in building pedestrian-friendly sustainable development like Davis Commons.

“We wanted to have a reason for people to come here and we hit upon the idea that what we should have is a beautiful green space, a commons,” says Friedman.

For most of us that wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind in considering a 44,000 square foot retail space. But it was for Friedman. Storefronts face the park, and the parking is hidden in the back.

“When we originally presented the plan to the planning commission for design review it was very, very favorably received, and they appreciated the important public gesture of devoting a significant portion of the site to a public park,” says Friedman.

But that was before a group calling itself “The Friends of Davis” discovered that Borders Books was the anchor tenant. The group sued under CEQA. Friedman says the lawsuit had little to do with the environment, but was instigated by an independent bookstore owner.

“You don’t have to demonstrate you have an environmental interest that’s been harmed and in fact you don’t even have to disclose who you are,” says Friedman.

It took several years, cost more than $150,000, and ended up at the state Supreme Court before Friedman could finish Davis Commons.  California state Senator Michael Rubio, a moderate Democrat, is leading the charge to overhaul CEQA and stop abusive litigation.

“That’s the argument we’re putting forward, should CEQA be used, should it be misused rather for some to delay or kill projects when it has nothing to do with the environment, there is an entire cottage industry that’s out there today filing these lawsuits,” says Rubio.

Environmentalists disagree.  “You can point to one or two examples here or there but the reality is it’s not slowing up a tremendous amount of development,” says Bruce Reznik, with the Planning and Conservation League. He says study after study shows few projects end up in court because of CEQA.

“The statistics are the statistics, point 3 percent of projects face litigation the majority of those ultimately get built, but usually they get built with more environmental  and community protections,” says Reznik.

Environmentalists like Reznik argue that CEQA needs to be strengthened, not reformed.  They say Rubio’s effort last legislative session to overhaul CEQA would have emasculated it.

“Would have rendered CEQA to us the most important foundational environmental law and community protection law in the state of California, really a moot point a meaningless law,” says Reznik.

The most contentious part of that bill would have blocked CEQA lawsuits if a project’s environmental review met a city’s general plan or state environmental standards. Democratic Senator Noreen Evans, a long-time CEQA supporter, says the “standards-based” approach is a bad idea.

“General plans are by their very definition general and CEQA is designed to get into the weeds of any development and identify any potential negative impacts so that the local government can then require those be mitigated. This approach that would be standards based would throw that out,” says Evans.

While Rubio’s attempt at changing the law last session was unsuccessful, political pressure this session seems to be in his favor. The governor has called for modernizing the law.  And Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who put Rubio’s overhaul efforts last session on hold, says it’s time for a change.

“I think after 40 years it’s time for an update that protects the environment, but allows the process to work a little more efficiently and a little faster, especially for projects that we encourage like renewable energy, and other clean and green projects,” says Steinberg.

There is some agreement on small changes, like revealing the identities and financial interests of litigants. Several bills that would change CEQA have already been introduced. But it will be a long battle before any legislation takes a final form.

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