The appetizers have been cleared and it looks like the table is being set for possible reform of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). While there are a large number of issues that one can discuss when it comes to CEQA reform, I will limit my comments to how to stop abusive CEQA lawsuits.
The CEQA debate came to a head recently in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. The debate featured a lot of legislators, a lot of bills and a lot of passion, but in the end it became clear that Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg was going to control this debate with his bill, SB 731. CALA had been supporting legislation by State Senator Tom Berryhill as one possible vehicle for reform, but it was pretty clear that SB 787 was going to be grounded due to the makeup of the committee.
What was interesting to me is that every single State Senator that spoke about CEQA reform discussed lawsuits, litigation and the fact we need reduce abusive CEQA lawsuits. If I had a dollar for every time lawsuits were mentioned I could buy a season ticket to the Sacramento Kings.
It seems like everyone now acknowledges that CEQA lawsuits, whether or not they have merit, have become a path to slow down or stop development projects. In the bill analysis for SB 731, the consultant to the Senate Environmental Quality Committee specifically examined the issue of CEQA litigation, noting that just the simple threat of a lawsuit is an impetus for extra costs and delays of a project subject to environmental review. Indeed, when communities pursue major development projects, it seems they inevitably will encounter a problem with CEQA litigation and abuse.
If one abusive CEQA lawsuit holds up or stops a project that would bring jobs and economic development to our state, then we have a problem. There needs to be reform when it comes to the issue of CEQA and litigation. We hope that SB 731 by State Senator Steinberg will be that vehicle for reform. CEQA, just like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Proposition 65, is complicated, and there is a delicate balancing act that must occur. Just as he did with California’s ADA laws last year, we are confident that Senator Steinberg can strike this balance with CEQA.