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California Focus: Expect some changes in those CEQA rules

No law annoys California developers more than the California Environmental Quality Act and they figure to win at least some changes to its strict 42-year-old rules in the new year.

They almost sneaked through a major softening of the state’s premier environmental law last September in the waning moments of the last legislative session, but were forced to back off in the face of heavy objections to softening the law without any public hearings at all.

CEQA requires sponsors of any building project or other development that will have a significant effect on the environment to write an environmental impact report assessing the effects of even its smallest aspects. Signed in 1970 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, the law was intended to supplement the National Environment Policy Act of 1969. That law demands an environmental impact statement for every significant action by any federal agency.

The state law has been used by environmentalists and others to obstruct countless projects, with legal challenges to the adequacy of EIRs often adding months and years to the planning cycle of projects as diverse as sports arenas and apartment buildings.

Business and development interests maintain they respect the way CEQA provides the public with information about the effects of projects large and small. Effects measured by EIRs include everything from public health considerations – would a new freeway create health risks from vehicle exhaust? – to increased traffic and potential danger to wildlife. Once identified, adverse impacts must be mitigated, often raising costs.

No governor since CEQA passed has seemed more receptive to loosening requirements than the current version of Jerry Brown, taking a very different approach than during his first gubernatorial incarnation from 1975-83.

In a news conference last August, Brown allowed that “I’ve never seen a CEQA exemption I didn’t like.” Later he remarked that “CEQA reform is the Lord’s work.” It was no surprise, then, when developer allies in the Legislature quickly sought to push changes through.

Among alterations attempted then and likely to return iss an exclusion from CEQA for projects that already comply with local land-use plans previously certified as consistent with CEQA.

Brown’s turnaround on this law stems from his experience as mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007, a time when several projects he saw as bettering blighted areas of that city were stymied by challenges under CEQA.

In his first year back as governor, Brown signed one bill fast-tracking legal review under CEQA for a proposed football stadium in downtown Los Angeles and another speeding up big projects (costing at least $100 million) that incorporate high environmental standards. But he pulled back on a push to exclude high speed rail construction from CEQA. There has also been talk of excluding proposed water-transporting tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta.

The entire picture dismays environmental leaders and excites development interests.

On the other side, the CEQA Working Group, a coalition of business, labor and affordable housing interests, claims that other laws like the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and a panoply of anti-smog laws make CEQA at least partially redundant, forcing developers to spend time and money going over similar sets of facts in excessive paperwork.

But environmentalists point to a 2005 study by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California indicating only one project in every 354 is ever delayed by CEQA-related actions.

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