Wednesday, January 30, 2013

CEQA "modernization" not needed

Cynthia Murray of the North Bay Leadership Council, in her oped of January 20, 2013 (Marin Voice: Time to modernize CEQA so it is used properly), purports to speak for what “most people” want, saying “Most people would agree that if a school, hospital or road project has been subjected to extensive environmental review and met all federal, state and local environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act, the project should go forward without being sued for purported environmental reasons.”

If this were the case, then there would be no need for the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and its provisions for citizen enforcement.  The laws she refers to are all Federal laws (which, incidentally have their own citizen enforcement provisions), all laudable but narrowly defined.  CEQA, on the other hand, is broad-based and covers a multitude of environmental requirements for anything considered a “project” under its terms.  

This includes the impact on traffic, neighborhood character, visual and aesthetic properties, archeological qualities of a site, and many more. 

Development and big business interests have been trying to gut CEQA for years in the name of “reform.’” Some recent changes  include SB 226 in 2011 which streamlined the process for infill housing projects if they can demonstrate that they adhere to other environmental laws.  

To call for more changes without even specifying what they are, as Murray does in her call for “modernization” appears to be nothing more than a ploy to further erode the citizen enforcement provisions of what is a landmark environmental law.

As Murray herself points out, (citing an undated report by the Thomas Law Group) courts reject 50% of all projects challenged under CEQA. That means  50% of the cases are successful.  And this represents only the published cases.  A very small percentage of any cases are published or even appealed in California.  Yet even so, the fact that 50% of published  cases, those that are appealed and deemed important enough to be published by the appellate court, are decided in favor of challengers  should tell us something and it’s not that the law needs to be changed. It’s that it’s working.  If a local or state governmental agency is not doing its job by approving projects that do not comply with California’s environment all regulations, we need an informed and active populace to make sure they do.  Laws like CEQA insure that can happen.

CEQA doesn’t necessarily stop all such projects, but it makes the jurisdiction follow the law, and the project proponents perform needed mitigation measures, before approval takes place.   If not, the average citizen has the right to file a lawsuit, and if they win, to have their attorneys fees and costs  reimbursed. Without those provisions, there would be little incentive for developers or bureaucrats to do the right thing.

What Murray and others representing development and big business interests want is for no citizen review under CEQA  when  “a project has met all required state, federal and local environmental laws, regulations and planning, zoning and land-use requirements…” But who is to make that determination, if the citizens lose their rights under CEQA? 
Instead of weakening and further “modernizing” a law that is working quite well for the citizens and the environment in California, we should be invested in protecting it and strengthening other environmental protections and regulations that ultimately lead to better projects, smarter development and a cleaner, healthier environment for all.