Both Sides Must Negotiate Environmental Reforms

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Sure, “CEQA Works,” but not as well as it should.

The landmark California Environmental Quality Act, a sharp tool for protecting the state’s natural patrimony from reckless and unquestioned development, now is too often used as a thick, rusty doorstop to block any projects that someone, anyone, just doesn’t want to see happen.

The sides are lining up for a battle, with environmentalists and labor unions joining under the “CEQA Works” banner while state business interests, backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, are calling for what they argue are essential changes to boost California’s still-struggling economy.

Strictly from a reporter’s view, best described as “Why don’t you and him fight?” the posturing is lots of fun to watch. On one side you have environmentalists convinced that the slightest change to a 42-year-old law will mean high-rise condos in Golden Gate Park and oil derricks in La Jolla.

On the other side you have developers, high-tech sorts and business leaders talking about how they know just how important CEQA protections are when it’s clear that most of them would stomp the measures into dust if they thought they could get away with it.

And this is before there are even any CEQA reform bills out there to look at.

But times – and the environmental movement — have changed in California. What once was an effort to channel growth so that it respected California’s land, air and waters has too often become a way to just say no to development, regardless of any beneficial impacts it might have.

For too many construction projects in California, environmental battles are less about negotiating for the best possible development with the least possible impact, than about an endless round of legal battles designed to keep anything at all from happening.

Call it death by 1,000 cuts. Or maybe being nibbled to death by ducks.

In an op-ed piece in the Sacramento Bee last week, former Govs. George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis came out in favor of Brown’s call to revise CEQA, saying that it has become “the favorite tool of those who seek to stop economic growth and progress for reasons that have little to do with the environment.”

The complaints have a local echo. In San Francisco, Supervisor Scott Wiener is trying to change the city’s environmental rules so that opponents only get one bite of the legal apple in development disputes and can’t continue to file endless environmental challenges at every step of the approval process.

Although Wiener, a gay attorney who represents the city’s Castro District, would be considered a raving leftist in almost any other California city, he’s being accused of trying to reform the process of government so it runs more smoothly. Which, in the eyes of many environmental types, is a bad thing.

“Process is important in San Francisco,” Tom Radulovich, an elected BART board member and director of the Livable City environmental organization, told the Bay Guardian. “For a lot of people that want to slow things down, they are very process focused and he’s really messing with that.”

In his time as mayor of Oakland, Brown saw just how that “process” can be abused to delay progress and improvements desperately needed to make people’s lives better.

Environmental regulation works as long as everyone is playing by the same rulebook. But when one side denies even the possibility that a project might be necessary or beneficial, something has to give.

Developers absolutely need to be transparent about their projects and the potential environmental impact and must be willing to negotiate ways to limit any damage. And yes, the public must be included in the process.

But there have to be limits. The California Water Project and the state’s freeway system had huge environmental impacts on the state, but does that mean they shouldn’t have been built? And how many people already talking about the problems high-speed rail will cause Central Valley farmers, crops and cattle are looking less for possible environmental solutions then they are for ways to stop a project they don’t like?

There’s going to be a long, noisy fight over Brown’s effort to revise CEQA and that’s a good thing. There needs to be discussion, and lots of it, about the best way to manage California’s future growth and protect its natural resources, while still adding jobs and improving the economy.

That’s not going to happen, though, unless both sides are willing to negotiate and ultimately agree to compromises they don’t want to make.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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