The Governor said in his State of the State speech: “We … need to rethink and streamline our regulatory procedures, particularly the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).”
CEQA, for those of you who do not know, was passed in California in 1970 – the year of the first Earth Day. It does not directly regulate land use, but what it does do is make environmental impact analysis a mandatory part of every California state and local agency’s decision-making process. It has also become the basis for numerous lawsuits concerning public and private projects.
CEQA’s broad scope and lack of clear thresholds often leads to litigation. Individuals and organizations opposing developments often file lawsuits to delay projects and grind development to a halt. CEQA plaintiffs often challenge projects that receive negative declarations, i.e., that are found to have no significant effect on the environment, on the grounds that environmental impact reports (EIRs) should have occurred. Litigation also occurs on the grounds that EIRs are too brief or overlooked possible impacts. Truly, lawsuits have become rampant in the CEQA process, delaying projects that would bring jobs and economic growth to a state that badly needs both.
Change is needed. Like so many other well intended laws, the law of unintended consequences applies. In this case, the consequence has been an enormous number of lawsuits. That is why CALA supports State Senator Tom Berryhill’s SB 787, which will integrate newer — sometimes stricter — environmental and planning laws with CEQA review. Additionally, SB 787 focuses on CEQA litigation. The bill would limit litigation when projects are in compliance with the applicable environmental laws.
The bill would still permit opponents to sue under CEQA. Opponents can challenge whether lead agencies complied with procedural requirements of CEQA (e.g. adequate project descriptions, adequate notice and public hearings, etc.). CEQA lawsuits may still be filed, with limited exceptions, for failure to comply with CEQA’s procedural and substantive requirements. The Sacramento Bee’s Dan Morain said it best. “In any overhaul, legislators must walk a line,” he wrote, between “how to limit lawsuits intended to shakedown developers, while protecting legitimate concerns of organizations and citizens who don’t want thoroughfares or factories in their front yards.”
The expansion of abusive lawsuits that threaten the creation of jobs and economic development has demonstrated that CEQA needs substantial reform. CALA supports balanced, bipartisan reform, and Sen. Berryhill should be applauded for introducing SB 787. It will be up in Senate Environmental Quality on May 1st. Just like with ADA, we were able to find a balance and enact reform. This can be done with CEQA!