Farm Bureau Anti-HSR Suit Clearly Intended to Stop Project
There’s been a lot of discussion of the California Environmental Quality Act lately and the need to reform it. My view is that environmental regulations and reviews of projects are very important, but that it should not be used to stop good and environmentally friendly projects from going forward. If the review process is used with the intent of making a project better, that’s great! But that’s not what’s happening with high speed rail.
Last week two farm bureaus – from Merced and Madera counties – were in superior court in Sacramento to argue why CEQA should be used to stop the high speed rail project in its tracks. As this report from the Ag Alert, a publication of the California Farm Bureau Federation, makes clear, the goal is indeed to stop HSR and CEQA is merely the vehicle to achieve a result the plaintiffs could not win at the ballot box or in the state legislature:
“Regardless of the federal approval and regardless of the Obama administration’s promise to expedite permits, the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) case will stop the project if the preliminary injunction is issued,” said Anja Raudabaugh, Madera County Farm Bureau executive director. “If they can’t get past the CEQA challenge, the project gets stopped….
“That the judge is going to allow our preliminary injunction hearing to occur [in November] is huge. If an injunction is issued, they will not be able to release federal money in time to complete by the December 2017 deadline, which stops our segment of the project,” Raudabaugh said.
That’s as clear a statement as you need to know that stopping the project outright is their goal. That question shouldn’t be decided in the courts and it shouldn’t be decided by using CEQA. When it comes to environmentally friendly projects like sustainable, electric passenger trains, approval by voters and legislators should be enough to determine that it will go forward. CEQA’s role should be to ensure that it is built in ways that help the environment, and that any impacts are properly mitigated. And the court’s role is to see that those rules are followed.
What the Farm Bureaus are after is something else entirely – using the CEQA and court processes to destroy a project they couldn’t stop through the normal democratic processes. They have a right to want to stop the project, sure. But they’re abusing CEQA in the process. And so this lawsuit becomes yet another piece of evidence in the growing case for CEQA reform.
As to the Farm Bureau’s concerns about HSR’s impact on the ag industry, I’m not sure I agree with this logic:
“This case for us is about preserving ag land,” Raudabaugh said. “The threat that this project poses is the biggest threat to the Central San Joaquin Valley that has ever happened, because of the size of the project and the potential to urbanize prime farmland.”
I strongly support preserving ag land too. But I do not see how HSR threatens it. It certainly won’t urbanize it. The best comparison to the HSR project is Interstate 5, built through the middle of farmland on the west side of the Central Valley. It didn’t lead to urbanization, as you can see by the long, empty, almost desolate drive on I-5 between Tracy and the Grapevine.
And because HSR stations will be in the middle of existing cities, it won’t create pressure for urbanization. Instead it will create pressure to densify existing urban areas, with the most pressure coming in the areas immediately adjacent to the stations. Farmers in Merced or Madera counties whose land won’t see tracks running through it will see no impacts at all. Farmers whose land will have tracks running through it will obviously see impacts, but those are minor and can be mitigated.
Who knows what will happen in Sacramento Superior Court in November. But this does show what should happen in the Sacramento State Capitol in 2013, and that is reform of CEQA so that people can’t use the law to try and kill good, environmentally friendly projects they personally dislike.