CEQA: Opponents abuse CEQA to derail worthy projects

By MICHAEL RUBIOJanuary 26, 2013 

I support the California Environmental Quality Act and, when asked why I want to modernize it, I immediately think of the Metro Expo Line Extension in Los Angeles, connecting Santa Monica to downtown.

If and when it is completed, this project will have taken more than nine years. The project will significantly reduce traffic on one of the most congested freeways in the country and help California achieve its internationally renowned greenhouse gas reduction standards. It will greatly improve air quality and overall public health.

In New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman's book, "That Used to Be Us," he writes about how "people have sort of gotten used to" the snail-pace project schedules in the United States compared with other countries. Similarly, many in California have "sort of gotten used to" the misuse of arguably one of the most important laws enacted in our state's history: CEQA. When NFL football stadiums are exempted from this law and projects that improve the public health and the environment take nine years, it motivates me to modernize CEQA.

There are many examples of where the misuse of CEQA has impacted foster youths, elementary school upgrades, University of California campus improvements, urban bike lanes and critical infrastructure projects. We seem to have "sort of gotten used to" doing without all of these projects while CEQA lawsuits cause yearslong delays and significant cost increases. Two specific examples occur in the Sacramento and Bay Area regions.

In Auburn, a group of people calling themselves Residents Against Inconsistent Development, or RAID, used CEQA to challenge an affordable housing project that forced the developer to lose loans and grants. RAID then signed a settlement agreement to allow the project to move forward if the majority of units were market rate, essentially discriminating against poor people. The Sierra Club and the Audubon Society publicly stated that the lawsuit was bogus, serving as an attack to stop affordable housing rather than to protect the environment.

In Berkeley, an infill mixed-use development to house 40 low-income seniors was delayed two years by one person who sued, claiming the project would change the aesthetics of her neighborhood. The Sierra Club supported the project as it met every environmental law in California. This case cost the city and developer an extra million dollars.

Now is the time to look forward and determine how we are going to best fulfill our stated priority: restore full economic growth in California while leading the world on progressive environmental standards. As the incoming chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, I believe that modernizing CEQA should be the top priority to ensure that California remains green and golden.

Many laws have been adopted at the federal, state and local levels to protect the environment, including air quality, water quality, species protection, greenhouse gas reduction, toxics, hazardous waste, responsible land use planning and more. CEQA, however, has not been modified to reflect these new laws.

Modernizing CEQA is needed so that California remains a leader in protecting the environment and growing a 21st century economy. We can do this while also preserving the best portions of the law -- public disclosure and participation, mitigation of environmental impacts and the ability to challenge projects that don't meet existing environmental standards.

Specifically, one idea being proposed is that once a project has met the relevant environmental statutes, regulations and codes set forth by the state and local authorities, and has completed an Environmental Impact Report, that it be protected from lawsuits on those aspects. Too many times, a project that has met all of the environmental requirements is unfairly delayed or even killed by a lawsuit. Misuse of CEQA should not be able to derail projects.

As this process moves forward, we will continue to solicit input and make sure that the voices of interested stakeholders are both heard and considered. Public participation will always remain a key element of CEQA and the process to modernize this important law.

We must never get used to the delay of projects caused by CEQA abuses.

Rubio, D-East Bakersfield, represents the 16th Senate District.

THE SACRAMENTO BEE

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