With three weeks left in the 2013 legislative session, California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) reform is waiting on the sidelines while the list of public and private projects being stalled under the allegation of CEQA violations continues to grow. The most recent ruse is a CEQA challenge to a new downtown high-rise housing project in San Jose by a construction union official objecting that some workers on the project would be non-union from Sacramento. The appeal may not be successful in the long term, but it is one more example of interest groups using CEQA to stop or delay projects for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment. 

The Statewide CEQA Working Group, which I co-chair, has been working with Sen. Darrell Steinberg all year on ways to modernize the 43-year-old law to reduce the number of public and private projects that often get stuck in CEQA litigation for reasons unrelated to environmental protection. Unfortunately, SB 731, which is the CEQA reform bill Sen. Steinberg introduced at the beginning of the session, is not the answer in its current form. Unless amended, SB 731 would introduce new requirements for lead agencies and project proponents and create more opportunities for meritless lawsuits against projects that have already complied with CEQA and other current state and local planning and environmental laws.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration agrees that CEQA reform is essential and that SB 731 can be a vehicle for meaningful reform if amended. The Office of Planning and Research has submitted proposed changes that would extend the type of projects eligible for streamlining and eliminate the need for certain projects to undergo extensive EIRs if a city has approved a specific plan. Additionally, editorial pages throughout the State are urging Sen. Steinberg to improve the bill in ways that eliminate abuse without endangering the environment, which was the original intent of the law in 1970 when it was signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan.

We urge Gov. Brown, Sen. Steinberg and Speaker John Perez not to waste this golden opportunity to modernize CEQA to achieve the goals that all three leaders have discussed during the past year. With the State’s unemployment rate stuck at 8.7 percent and the California construction industry shedding more than 7,000 jobs in July, substantive CEQA reform is an obvious necessity for the State of California and millions of unemployed and underemployed residents of our state.