Crossposted on San Diego Union Tribune
Californians are unique – independent, optimistic, innovative, entrepreneurial and self-confident. These characteristics, evident during the Gold Rush, are just as common today in communities up and down California, from the Silicon Valley, to Los Angeles, to San Diego. This entrepreneurial spirit has fueled hundreds of thousands of small businesses throughout our state and created millions of jobs. It’s what makes California the Golden State and why we are the eighth largest economy in the world.
Likewise, California is often referred to as more of a “state of mind” than a state. A place where great weather, geography and natural beauty combine to provide a relaxed and fulfilling lifestyle. Because of this, Californians also share a strong environmental consciousness – one that has helped to make our state the greenest in the country and a world leader in environmental policy. This too is part of who we are.
From these two parts of our collective personality comes a unique challenge – keeping California both “green” and “golden.” Doing this requires reason and understanding that both goals are coequal priorities for Californians. This certainly means protecting our environment. However, it also means a willingness to relentlessly advance smart reforms of environmental laws, business regulations, or policies that unnecessarily disrupt the reasonable balance between being “green” and “golden.”
As three former California governors with firsthand experience managing this dynamic, we believe that one of our state’s oldest environmental laws, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), is in need of modernization.
Adopted in 1970, CEQA provides a process for government to evaluate and mitigate adverse environmental impacts from projects and programs. While CEQA’s original intent must remain intact, now is the time to end reckless abuses of this important law; abuses that are threatening California’s economic vitality, costing jobs, and are wasting valuable taxpayer dollars.
Ending these abuses means modernizing CEQA with smart reforms such as requiring petitioners to disclose their economic interests, adding certainty to the CEQA timeline, avoiding duplicative CEQA reviews, lessening opportunities for litigation and delay and updating CEQA so that it better integrates and coordinates numerous environmental protection mandates.
Today, CEQA lawsuits are frequently filed only to extract concessions not related to the environment, or for the purpose of opposing a project for reasons having nothing to do with environmental protection. For example, in Los Angeles, a company that owns several student housing buildings near USC filed a CEQA lawsuit against another developer in an attempt to stop them from building a competing project in the area.
Frivolous CEQA lawsuits also cost taxpayers real dollars. Recently, the San Diego Association of Governments was the first region in the nation to complete a new long-term regional growth and transportation plan that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. After two years of extensive collaboration which generated 4,000 public comments, the plan was adopted. Preserving over half of the region’s land as open space, the plan will create more than 35,000 jobs and generate an additional $4.4 billion in economic activity. Unfortunately, before the ink was even dry, local anti-growth groups filed a CEQA lawsuit putting this “smart growth” blueprint at risk, and unquestionably delaying, if not costing, jobs.
Also in San Diego, in response to multiple lawsuits filed by the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, a judge ruled that an annual fireworks display in La Jolla Cove and other community events in urban parks require a CEQA study. Arguably this decision has the effect of broadening CEQA’s reach and opening the door for other temporary events, like charity walks, street fairs and concerts in the park to be pulled into the costly and litigious morass of CEQA review.
Sadly, these are but a small fraction of the examples of abusive CEQA litigation, where costly delays and settlements have had very little to do with true environmental protection.
There has been a lot of talk about the need to confront CEQA litigation abuse, but unfortunately it’s been mostly talk. Inaction is no longer an option, as there is simply too much at risk for both our economy and our environment. We must tackle this important issue now. By applying reason along with well-established California characteristics of innovation, self-confidence, and environmental and economic leadership, we can indeed modernize CEQA, end frivolous litigation abuse, and restore the necessary balance so that our state can remain both “green” and “golden.” As Californians, anything less is simply not acceptable.
Deukmejian, Wilson and Davis, former governors of California, are members of the Southern California Leadership Council, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy partnership.