Don’t dilute CEQA, improve it
I remember life before the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. I grew up in Altadena and Pasadena during the late 1930s and ‘40s. All too often I awoke to thick smog and air quality warnings. I watched as segments of the San Gabriel Valley shifted from orange groves to miles upon miles of housing, and communities were cut in half by an ever-expanding network of freeways.
By 1970, Gov. Ronald Reagan and a Republican-led Legislature realized that something had to be done. The Golden State was in danger of losing its luster. A disastrous oil spill in 1969 had marred the Santa Barbara coastline. Air quality continued to suffer throughout the Los Angeles Basin. And agricultural land was lost to development. In response to these concerns, the legislators in Sacramento passed the California Environmental Quality Act, and Reagan signed it.
Now, at the request of developers and business interests, state lawmakers are debating whether to weaken CEQA. Leaders should approach such amendments with great caution and take care to defend the law’s core provisions. This landmark law has played a fundamental role in protecting air and water quality, public health and our state’s incomparable natural areas.
When I served as California’s attorney general, my office enforced CEQA to ensure that development projects moved forward in the least environmentally damaging way possible. My goal was not to prevent development but to make project proponents mitigate the very real environmental harm they could cause.
There are countless examples of projects that have been improved through CEQA’s comprehensive review process. The Port of Los Angeles adopted measures to reduce air pollution, improving public health in the neighboring communities of San Pedro and Wilmington. Millions of gallons of sewage are kept out of Newport Bay every year thanks to mitigation measures in the law. We can also thank CEQA for keeping much of the Santa Monica Mountains as publicly accessible recreational areas and habitat instead of a checkerboard of private estates.
Business leaders and project proponents complain that the CEQA process unduly slows good projects. There is some merit to these complaints. When approval of projects is delayed, funding may simply dry up and worthwhile projects may be abandoned. This is harmful, particularly at a time when California’s economy is struggling to recover from an extended recession. Public agencies’ handling of projects that fall under CEQA needs to be improved. They need to speed up preparation of environmental impact reports and the required administrative records.
Courts need to deal with CEQA challenges in a timely way (perhaps by dedicating specific courts to them, where assigned judges would receive adequate CEQA training and judicial caseloads would be managed to avoid delays in record-intensive cases). And when frivolous claims are filed, courts need to impose the penalties already authorized by the law against parties raising them. And financial resources need to be provided to accomplish these goals.
To be clear, CEQA lawsuits are rare. Studies from the attorney general’s office show that less than 1% of CEQA projects end up in litigation; they constitute 0.02% of civil proceedings statewide. But, for the cases that are filed, speeding up environmental impact reports and the preparation of the administrative record would increase certainty for developers. It should also be done in a manner that improves public disclosure and transparency.
State legislators began addressing this issue two years ago, and they are considering further improvements. Two laws passed in 2011 require that public agencies prepare the administrative record concurrently with the environmental review of certain large-scale projects. A bill under consideration, SB 617, would expand this requirement to most CEQA projects. It would also require public agencies to post all CEQA-related notices and records of proceedings online and simultaneously file them with the state Office of Planning and Research.
These steps would make it easier for the public to track which developments are planned in their area and would begin to speed up the CEQA process. But more needs to be done.
CEQA has played an important role in protecting not only our California environment but also the health and well-being of our families and communities. Now is the time to improve it, not abandon it.
John Van de Kamp served as attorney general of California from 1983 to 1991 and created the office’s Public Rights Division to give focus to environmental, consumer protection, antitrust and civil rights enforcement.
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