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Opinion

Editorial: Don’t bend California’s environmental rules for billionaire sports owners or the Olympics

LOS ANGELES, CA-JULY 31, 2017: People visit the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Jul
People visit the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, site of the 1932 and 1984 Summer Olympic Games, in Los Angeles on July 31.
(Los Angeles Times)

California lawmakers are — again — considering a last-minute bill that would let deep-pocketed developers and favored projects cut corners on the state’s landmark environmental law.

Last week Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) introduced a bill that was pitched as a way to dramatically speed the construction of transit lines and parking lots needed for the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 2028. Bradford’s big idea? Exempting the projects from all the studies and public input required by the California Environmental Quality Act. The primary beneficiaries of Senate Bill 789, however, would be the proposed Clippers arena and other projects in Inglewood’s sports and entertainment district.

Bradford’s bill is the latest salvo in the ongoing fight over CEQA, which was enacted more than 40 years ago as a way to inform, protect and empower the public by requiring developers to disclose the environmental effects of their projects and to mitigate any harm they may cause. While CEQA is a vital tool that has made countless projects better since its inception, it is also too easily used to tie up projects with costly and time-consuming lawsuits for reasons that have nothing to do with environmental protection.

Rather than address the broader problem of CEQA abuse, it’s become commonplace now in Sacramento for lawmakers to craft special CEQA exemptions for projects they favor — often multi-million-dollar sports venues, such as the Kings arena in Sacramento.

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Many Californians already believe the law’s mandates are negotiable for the rich and well-connected.

It’s a cop-out that advances the interests only of well-connected developers and growth-hungry local officials.

But as for making more substantive reforms to CEQA? No way, that’s the third rail of California politics. Lawmakers refuse to touch it. So they keep introducing exemptions that erode CEQA’s protections, project by project. Bradford’s might be the most aggressive yet.

First, SB 789 would exempt from CEQA the construction of any trains, monorails, street cars or parking lots that could be used during the Olympics. That would be unprecedented in California, and essentially give government agencies and developers carte blanche to build hugely disruptive multi-million-dollar projects without studying the potential environmental or community impacts or addressing public concerns. Again — lawmakers should be looking for ways to ensure CEQA isn’t misused to impede major public infrastructure improvements. But throwing out CEQA altogether is unwarranted and wrongheaded.

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The exemption for the Olympics, it turns out, was a sweetener added to make the bill more palatable to lawmakers who want to support the 2028 Games. It didn’t work. As soon as the bill became public last week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — who has spearheaded the city’s Olympic bid — said the city did not request the exemption or think it was necessary. The LA2028 bid committee also sent a letter to Bradford asking him to remove the Olympics exemptions from the bill.

The Olympics provisions are just part of the problem with SB 789, however. The bill would exempt from CEQA a proposed transit link between the Crenshaw/LAX Line now being built and the new NFL stadium for the Rams and the Chargers in the same part of Inglewood as the proposed new Clippers arena. It would let the city of Inglewood use eminent domain to take private property, except homes, for the sports and entertainment district without first completing the CEQA analysis. And it would halt a judge’s ability to block the project, even if the judge found that an environmental review already conducted was deeply flawed.

The developers of the Clippers arena argue they need the bill to prevent competitors — namely, they say, the owners of Staples Center and the Forum — from using CEQA lawsuits to delay or kill the project. Chris Meany, the arena project manager, argued that CEQA is too easily “weaponized” by opponents.

He’s got a point. Businesses have used CEQA lawsuits to block competition, and neighborhood groups have used the law as a bargaining chip to coax money or concessions from developers. So, yes, there is a real need for changes that make it harder to misuse CEQA.

But lawmakers’ willingness to ignore that larger problem while passing exemption after exemption for the billion-dollar sports teams, corporations and developers only underscores what many Californians already believe: that the law’s mandates are negotiable for the rich and well-connected.

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