CEQA Modernization? Reform so close, Yet not this year.

Last Thursday, a bill containing thoughtful, substantive and long-overdue modernizations to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) was put on hold by legislative leadership. SB 317, as introduced by Senator Michael Rubio, was backed by a broad coalition of business, labor, clean tech, schools, hospitals, transportation, local government, affordable housing and other groups with the goal of supporting meaningful CEQA reforms.  SB 317 was written to preserve the best parts of CEQA – environmental protection – while eliminating some of the abuses of CEQA that hurt job creation and community renewal.

When CEQA was enacted 40 years ago, the wide array of local, state and federal environmental and land use regulations that are now on the books didn’t exist. CEQA was essentially it.  In the 40 years since, Congress and the Legislature have adopted more than 120 laws to protect environmental quality in many of the same topical areas required to be independently mitigated under CEQA. Despite these stringent environmental laws and local planning requirements, public and private projects throughout the state are commonly challenged under CEQA even when a project meets all other environmental standards of existing laws.

These abuses have occurred right here in Orange County with the both the private and public sector falling victims to prolonged CEQA litigation:

  • A proposed housing development in Trabuco Canyon in the mid-90’s suffered numerous delays from CEQA litigation causing the developer to miss commencement of the project during the favorable real estate market.  To date, the project still has not been built.
  • CEQA litigation resulted in one Huntington Beach landowner “saving” dead eucalyptus trees and road ruts declared as wetlands when the real motive was to halt development of homes and restoration of truly degraded habitat.
  • The CEQA process for the State Route 73 extended from 1976 to 1991 and included two EIRs.  Despite the fact that the first EIR evaluated 26 alternatives, project opponents waited until the second, construction level EIR, to challenge the range of alternatives evaluated in the first EIR.  This is the standard project opponent strategy of not making timely comments on alternatives and then making a “late hit” to the project based on claims that could have been raised many years before.
  • The CEQA process for completing the State Route 241 project has gone on for over 25 years — not including the EIR prepared in the early 1980s by the County of Orange when the SR 241 project was added to the Master Plan of Arterial Highways.  Despite decades of analysis, project opponents claim that a new EIR is required.

We could go on, but you get the point.

CEQA can and should remain an important law to protect our communities and the environment. But after 40 years, the law needs to be modernized to ensure that environmental protection and community renewal go hand in hand. Legislative leadership has pledged to work on meaningful CEQA reform and we intend to hold them to their word. For more information contact Matt Petteruto, Vice President of Economic Development.

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