Between 2002 and 2011, roughly 200 development projects wound up in court each year throughout the state because of complaints filed under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Whether that figure exhibits an excess of litigation or a reasonable amount is the question driving the debate over reforming California’s bedrock environmental law.
On April 2, Paso Robles joined the ranks of CEQA reformers. The city council voted 5-0 to sign on with the CEQA Working Group, a coalition made mostly of business, trade, and real estate organizations hoping to overhaul the 42-year-old law. The council also resolved to lobby the local legislative delegation to support reform efforts in Sacramento.
“I would like to see something stronger than, ‘Hey we’re on board,’” council member Ed Steinbeck said.
Fewer than one percent of reviewable projects—those not exempted by statute—end up in court on CEQA grounds. Though few in numbers, the challenged projects tend to rank among the more significant in terms of public and private investment.
Reformers contend that expansions in substantive state and federal laws continue to make the review process more burdensome. When Gov. Ronald Reagan signed CEQA into law in 1970, such laws as the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act didn’t exist yet. Paso planning commissioner Jim Irving commented during the meeting that the mere possibility of CEQA litigation prevents certain projects from getting off the ground.
“I see it as a threat, and I see it adding cost,” he said.
Environmental groups respond that CEQA’s costs come with the benefit of providing a way for the public to make sure the government enforces its own laws. For example, citizens group North County Watch filed CEQA complaints against the Topaz and California Valley solar farms, but settled the issue with the county before the matter went to trial. Andrew Christie of the Sierra Club thinks the CEQA challenges made both solar farms better projects.
“When they talk about CEQA reform, they are talking about taking away the ability of communities to defend themselves,” Christie told New Times.
Efforts to reform CEQA date back virtually to the law’s passage, but the recent push began when moderate Democrats helped the party win a narrow supermajority in the California Legislature. Lawmakers proceeded to introduce 26 proposed CEQA amendments during the current legislative session.
The movement lost some steam when Sen. Michael Rubio (D-Bakersfield), who chaired the committee tasked with reviewing CEQA, resigned his seat to take a job with Chevron.