CEQA and the art of the deal

Legislators got the right result by the wrong process when they approved an expedited judicial review for AEG’s much-discussed downtown Los Angeles football stadium. The project is too important, and the state’s system for reviewing such projects too flawed, to allow procedure to stand in the way of progress. Nevertheless, it’s bad policy to offer special treatment to certain projects; it raises questions of favoritism and corruption to have the Legislature engage proposals one at a time rather than passing laws that apply equally to all.

That’s why the next business of this Legislature needs to be a comprehensive review of the California Environmental Quality Act. Now more than 30 years old, CEQA is the mainstay of the state’s vaunted environmental protection regime. It is a sweeping, if somewhat dated, testament to California’s determination to preserve a “high-quality environment that at all times is healthful and pleasing to the senses and intellect of man.” To achieve those noble goals, CEQA requires the proponent of a project to examine its environmental consequences, and demands that the reviewing agency produce an environmental impact report. The report must either assert that there are no significant environmental impacts (a “negative declaration”) or identify them and propose ways to mitigate them.

That’s all to the positive. Where CEQA is showing signs of age is in the process it created for challenging a project. CEQA lawsuits are famously protracted. The city of South Pasadena, for instance, challenged the state’s environmental impact report for extending the 710 Freeway in 1973, winning an injunction against the project that lasted until 1992 (a subsequent injunction blocked the project on the grounds that it would violate federal law as well).

Some projects should never be built, and CEQA has proved a valuable tool for blocking destructive and ill-considered undertakings. But it can also be a vehicle for anti-competitive objections and unjustified delays, an impediment to growth. As the Legislature spun through its end-of-session business last week, state Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) introduced a bill that would allow the governor, as a jobs measure during the recession, to expedite review of other major projects until 2015, on a case-by-case basis. Such authority would further politicize a process that is better handled outside the realm of special deals, but at least it opens a discussion that legislators in both parties need to join. It’s time get down to the important business of reviewing CEQA thoughtfully and carefully, not for one developer at a time but for all Californians.