The right of average citizens to protect their environment may be at stake
OPINION Big business interests in California are waging a full-scale assault on the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, which has been loudly blamed for the slowdown in new construction in recent years.
But sluggish construction has been problematic nationwide and is far beyond CEQA's reach. The exaggerated attacks on CEQA parallel extreme Tea Party politics, where facts don't seem to matter and well-funded voices drown out reason. Attackers unfairly scapegoat a law that instead deserves great credit for far-reaching good.
The truth is that while environmental review takes time and costs money, the CEQA process usually moves quickly. In terms of litigation, a recent report recounted 11 CEQA lawsuits filed against San Francisco last year, while many hundreds of projects were approved in the city without CEQA challenges. A Natural Resources Defense Council study in Los Angeles similarly found 18 cases filed after 1182 approvals. A more in-depth analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only one CEQA lawsuit is filed per 354 projects, a fraction of a percent.
So — what good does CEQA do? It assures citizens that they can participate in identifying and solving environmental problems alongside self–interested project applicants and City Hall insiders. The concept is simple and results in tangible benefits to California's environment via better, smarter projects. The Planning and Conservation League, in a publication aptly entitled "Everyday Heroes," assembled more than 70 examples of CEQA success. If space permitted I could describe scores of happy endings attributable to CEQA review that I have personally seen and celebrated.
CEQA assures environmental quality for present and future generations. Californians count on being informed about projects with environmental impacts — before their approval. In every California community, citizens organize and volunteer their time to offer comments and problem-solving suggestions. Applicants in turn know that their projects' environmental impacts must be both disclosed and mitigated.
Attempts to weaken CEQA have also been around for decades. They always fail as Californians continue to champion their unique neighborhoods, cities, farmland, beaches, and wilderness areas. Most developers, even if preferring that their own projects not be subjected to CEQA review, do not want the law waived for all other projects.
Still, the national economic slowdown has given new life to the overblown claims of CEQA critics. A few weeks ago in Sacramento, a last-minute "gut and amend" bill would have taken away key protections. The public responded and the effort, again, failed. But the push to gut CEQA continues in cynical barrage.
What should happen? While well-orchestrated attacks on CEQA in the press and in Sacramento are largely opportunistic and misdirected, there is room for improvement. Over the past five years CEQA has been revised to prevent alleged abuses — including a $10,000 penalty for anyone filing a frivolous suit — and to streamline environmental review. Other positive changes are now being discussed among experts -- without sacrificing citizen participation or substantial environmental protections.
Any CEQA amendments should occur only after a broad-based public process with full review by the Senate and Assembly Committees on Natural Resources.
Surely we do not want to regress to back-room planning and development without accountability. Benefiting all Californians in the long run, this profound law must itself be protected. As we continue to welcome millions to our beautiful state, we need CEQA's protections more than ever.
Attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley represents public-interest environmental preservation groups statewide. In the last 15 years her work has been recognized with state and national awards and her cases have contributed to CEQA precedent in all six districts of the California Court of Appeal and in the Supreme Court.