MOST PEOPLE would agree that if a school, hospital or road project has been subjected to extensive environmental review and met all federal, state and local environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act, the project should go forward without being sued for purported environmental reasons.
Unfortunately, these projects are being delayed and face increased costs or killed altogether because of abusive litigation that has nothing to do with the environment.
For 40 years, the California Environmental Quality Act has served as a vital tool to protect our environment by ensuring that all development projects undergo a rigorous environmental review and that impacts on the environment are mitigated.
CEQA needs to be modernized to ensure it is working in tandem with other environmental laws and regulations.
North Bay Leadership Council is part of a coalition representing business, labor, schools, hospitals, clean tech, transit, affordable housing and other groups that are pushing for moderate reforms to CEQA that will preserve its original intent — environmental protection and public disclosure — while eliminating some of the misuses of CEQA that hurt job creation, community renewal and our environment.
In the past 40 years, Congress and the state Legislature have adopted more than 120 laws to protect the environment including air quality,
water quality, species protection, greenhouse gas reduction, responsible land-use planning and more. CEQA has not received a major update to take these new laws into account. As a result, many environmentally desirable projects are being held up by abusive CEQA lawsuits — even when a project complies with all of California's other tough environmental laws and standards.
According to an analysis of court decisions by the Thomas Law Group, even when a project undergoes a full Environmental Impact Report, it is rejected 50 percent of the time when a court challenge is brought under CEQA.
Too often, CEQA lawsuits and the threat of litigation harm the type of community renewal and environmentally desirable growth we need. Lucasfilm's Grady Ranch project was abandoned because of the threat of a CEQA challenge, costing Marin hundreds of well-paying jobs. CEQA is routinely used to achieve results that have nothing to do with the environment or sound planning.
Our coalition supports an update with these reforms:
• CEQA would continue to serve as the principal environmental law to ensure that all projects are meeting federal, state and local environmental laws, regulations and zoning and planning.
• CEQA would continue to mandate comprehensive environmental review, disclosure and informed public debate for all environmental impacts of any proposed development.
• State agencies, local governments and other lead agencies would continue to retain their existing authority to reject projects, or to condition project approvals and impose mitigation measures that go above and beyond the law.
• When a project has met all required state, federal and local environmental laws, regulations and planning, zoning and land-use requirements, a CEQA lawsuit cannot be brought to force additional requirements through the courts that go above and beyond what's been required by law.
• Opponents could still sue or challenge whether lead agencies complied with the procedural requirements of CEQA, and opponents could also sue to ensure projects mitigate significant adverse environmental impacts not subject to local, state or federal laws and regulations.
The foundation of the law must be retained while limiting misuses that have nothing to do with the environment.
Sadly, CEQA has become the best tool for opponents to stop projects. Our goal is to return it to its intended purpose of protecting the environment.
Cynthia L. Murray is president and CEO of North Bay Leadership Council, an employer-led public policy advocacy organization committed to providing leadership in ways to make the North Bay sustainable, prosperous and innovative.