Three Former Governors Call for CEQA Reform

Feb 5th, 2013 | Posted by

In a Sacramento Bee op-ed yesterday, former California Governors George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, and Gray Davis made a case for reforming the California Environmental Quality Act. When you add in Governor Jerry Brown, and former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who has in the past expressed support for CEQA changes) you’ve got all five living California governors, with nearly 40 years of executive leadership, lined up behind changing the landmark law.

Here’s the core of their argument:

As three former California governors who often have differing views, on this point we wholeheartedly agree, and join with Gov. Brown in his call to modernize CEQA. 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 wasting valuable taxpayer dollars.

Yes, CEQA has been an important law that for 40 years has protected our environment, resulted in better informed planning and assured more public input and involvement in community growth decisions. These aspects of CEQA must be preserved.

But over time, CEQA has also become the favorite tool of those who seek to stop economic growth and progress for reasons that have little to do with the environment. Today, CEQA is too often abused by those seeking to gain a competitive edge, to leverage concessions from a project or by neighbors who simply don’t want any new growth in their community – no matter how worthy or environmentally beneficial a project may be.

Sadly, documented cases of CEQA abuse include examples where CEQA has stood in the way of renewable energy projects, infill housing, schools, hospitals, universities, public transit and needed infrastructure. In fact, CEQA is often a direct barrier to the sustainable and environmentally friendly growth that California aspires to achieve.

Done right, CEQA modernization will not only end abuses, but will also help quicken our state’s economic recovery and work to protect taxpayer resources.

These former governors are absolutely right when they note that CEQA is sometimes abused by people who do not have environmentally friendly or sustainable goals in mind. We’ve seen this repeatedly, whether it’s a lawsuit blocking a bike master plan or the now-settled lawsuit from Chowchilla that used CEQA to attack the high speed rail project route because the tracks stood between the city and its desired sprawl. And transit advocates have repeatedly witnessed NIMBYs conflating their own aesthetic judgements with “environmental quality” and using that to delay or make more costly important transportation projects.

Where I think their argument falls apart is when they talk about the economic impact of CEQA. While some job-creating projects would be authorized with a more streamlined CEQA process, those projects that aren’t actually very environmentally friendly would wind up costing the state more jobs than it would create over the long term, especially as the economic impact of sprawl and carbon emissions becomes clear. CEQA shouldn’t be reformed because it makes it harder to hire people to build stuff, it should be reformed because it makes it harder to hire people to build sustainable stuff.

If building a strong 21st century economy is the goal, then modernizing CEQA to favor carbon reducing projects while disfavoring carbon emitting projects should be the path forward. But these governors aren’t calling for that.

It’s also unclear that their proposed reforms would protect the spirit of CEQA:

We must update this 40-year-old law so that it better integrates and coordinates with the hundreds of newer environmental protection mandates adopted since CEQA’s passage, instead of requiring redundant and inconsistent reviews, as present law requires.

For example, today a project could meet all of the Clean Air Act mandates required of it and still be challenged under CEQA over the project’s air impacts. In this way CEQA leaves even the best intended and environmentally friendly projects that have complied with the extensive body of environmental laws and regulation vulnerable to litigation.

It does make sense to harmonize CEQA with other laws to the extent possible – but only so long as doing so does not create a weaker standard. The federal Clean Air Act is not the strongest law out there, and federal law is constantly subject to pressure from the right to be weakened. California definitely should have a higher standard than the rest of the nation, and CEQA should be part of that higher standard. So I am definitely wary of this approach and am not convinced it’s going to maintain strong environmental standards.

Still, these three former governors have a point about CEQA’s flaws. It’s just not acceptable when projects that help build sustainable communities and reduce carbon emissions can be held up or made more expensive by NIMBYs who do not actually have environmental quality in mind. CEQA defenders are right to be wary of exactly what a reform proposal looks like, and I’m reserving judgment until I see actual text. But CEQA defenders are going to struggle to make their case that major changes aren’t needed when we have so many examples of good projects, from solar panels to wind farms to electric trains to bike lanes, being held up and made more costly by CEQA lawsuits.

State environmental law should encourage good projects to be built, not discourage them. In a post later this week, we’ll take a closer look at what a good CEQA reform might look like. I am increasingly skeptical that 2013 will offer an opportunity for the ideal reforms to be seriously considered. But it will still be worth thinking about what we want, as it can help us assess the forthcoming reform proposals.

  1. Ted Judah
    Feb 5th, 2013 at 23:16

    Although perhaps it’s newsworthy that Pete Wilson, George Deukmejian, and Gray Davis agree on something, the City of Anaheim is apparently doing its best to make sure that doesn’t matter:

    [A] Feb. 2008 email chain shows Anaheim Public Works Director Natalie Meeks planning to ask for funds for one phase of the then planned monorail project but actually use the money for something else. The project has since been changed to a proposal for a less expensive streetcar system.

    According to [Anaheim Mayor] Tait, who has questioned the cost of the proposed streetcar system, there were two explanations for the email chain. One explanation has it being little more than confused wording, but another indicates a plan to deceive federal officials, Tait said.

    Anaheim Releases Emails Regarding Streetcar Project

  2. joe
    Feb 6th, 2013 at 09:31

    As it stands currently, and despite the boogie-men stories, CEQA doesn’t stop strip malls.
    CEQA was in in place when Walmart built it’s first CA mega store despite local opposition.

    Amending CEQA is not going to open the flood gates – they have been open. Maybe we can improve CEQA to better calculate the impact of car dependent development like strip malls.

  3. VBobier
    Feb 6th, 2013 at 09:59

    Interesting, very interesting….

  4. Alan Kandel
    Feb 6th, 2013 at 10:13

    “These former governors are absolutely right when they note that CEQA is sometimes abused by people who do not have environmentally friendly or sustainable goals in mind. We’ve seen this repeatedly, whether it’s a lawsuit blocking a bike master plan or the now-settled lawsuit from Chowchilla that used CEQA to attack the high speed rail project route because the tracks stood between the city and its desired sprawl.”

    The second and last sentence above seems almost oxymoronic especially the part “because the tracks stood between the city and its desired sprawl,” all in the context, of course, of how cutting carbon emissions and engaging in sustainable planning and development aim to curb sprawlapalooza.

    What part of the “Sustainable Communities Strategies” initiative process coupled with the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008 (SB 375) does the City of Chowchilla not understand?

    As it may relate, the City of Fresno in trying to get its own financial or economic house in order, is pursuing outsourcing of residential trash collection to private enterprise to save, what, $2 million? So shortsighted. If Fresno wasn’t so sprawled out and instead redirected development toward the urban center, this would be a non-issue in my opinion.

    In trying to stave off bankruptcy, the city should recognize that sprawlapalooza is what is straining (and draining) city resources. Uncontrolled sprawl, as people in the know, know, is “unsustainable.” It’s like the dog perpetually chasing its tail or, for that matter, people perpetually spinning their wheels and going nowhere fast – these are no-win situations.

    Lastly, a minor point:

    Rpbert, in the final paragraph, did you not instead mean “State environmental law should encourage good projects to be built,” and not “from being built”?

  5. Richard Mlynarik
    Feb 6th, 2013 at 10:28

    This baby doesn’t fit down the bath plug very easily.

    Perhaps if we sliced it into smaller, less-screamy pieces?

    All in the spirit of “compromise” and “reasonableness” and “stopping abuse”, of course.

  6. Elchu
    Feb 6th, 2013 at 15:42

    Good summary in The Guardian:

    Elchu Reply:

    Wrong thread. You get the idea…

    Jo Reply:

    It is nice to read the story behind the map. The author has a good progressive mind, makes total sense.

    Incidentally, gasoline prices are already starting to rise, and it is not even spring yet. CEQA reform and HSR can not come soon enough.

    VBobier Reply:

    Nice link and read.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    The comments follow the usual pattern, and they make me sad. So many people want this, I think it would certainly be useful, it could even be profitable (especially in a level playing field) but I fear the oil industry, old people, and (hak, kaff, kaff) “conservatives” will block it.

  7. D. P. Lubic
    Feb 6th, 2013 at 18:57
  8. joe
    Feb 6th, 2013 at 21:05

    A pro-CEQA rebuttal to Rick Perry’s attack ads on California.

    Editorial: Pity Rick Perry; his big state has big needs

    “This is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and I have a message for California businesses: Come check out Texas.”

    Yes, come check out Texas. Check out a state that ranks dead last in the percent of its population with high school diplomas. Come check out a state that is last in mental health expenditures and workers’ compensation coverage. Come check out a state that ranks first in the number of executions, first in the number of uninsured, first in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted and first in the amount of toxic chemicals released into water.

    Texas certainly has some attractions for business, and California certainly needs to work harder to create a friendly place to start companies and grow jobs. But California is creating businesses all the time, partly because of our natural assets – great weather and stunning mountains, beaches and deserts – and an excellent although underfunded system of higher education.

    If we invest in that system and protect our environment, our state will continue to create companies such as Apple, Google, Hewlett Packard, Oracle, Craigslist, Yelp, Twitter, Sun Microsystems, Genentech, Cisco, Intel and Qualcomm, and the list goes on and on.

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