The time for CEQA modernization is now!

The following op-ed was written by Lucy Dunn, President and CEO, Orange County Business Council, and originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

At a time when California is striving to encourage growth and job creation, updating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is imperative. Modernizing CEQA to make it function in a way that promotes the economy, while protecting the environment, is just what California needs. It also sends a strong message to the rest of the U.S. (and all those “visiting” state Governors trying to steal California business) that we are, in fact, “open for business.”

Senate President Darrell Steinberg began this process by introducing Senate Bill 731, legislation that lays out the initial framework for CEQA modernization discussions. SB 731 sets intent language that has the potential to ensure CEQA works to protect the environment, while stamping out abuses that stifle desirable projects and job growth. We commend Senator Steinberg for his leadership and commitment to accomplishing meaningful CEQA reform this session.

While SB 731 is a good first step, the legislation has not yet been written. A long process is ahead that will require a great deal of time and participation from diverse stakeholders to strike a balance between environmental protection and responsible economic growth.

The case for reform is compelling. In the 43 years since CEQA’s passage, the law has served as a vital tool to protect California’s environment by ensuring that proposed local projects undergo a rigorous review process and that the impacts of new development on the environment are adequately addressed. However, CEQA has become a tool frequently used by those who seek to stop projects–often for reasons that have little to do with environmental protection. Those misuses of CEQA must be stopped.

Too often, CEQA lawsuits and the mere threat of litigation harm the type of local community renewal and environmentally desirable economic growth we need. For instance, in Laguna Beach, the Emerald Bay Safety Improvement Project is currently on hold due to CEQA ligation, even after the project was approved by the County. Emerald Bay’s community entrance is at the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Shamrock Road, where many accidents have occurred – some fatal – due to an unprotected turn lane, lack of traffic signals and signage, and short merging lanes.

The County conducted several traffic studies, and prepared environmental studies and responded to numerous requests for comments and changes, in particular from one local group, Preserve and Protect North Laguna (PPNL). Ultimately, the project was approved by the County but PPNL sued nonetheless. Even though the court upheld the project, PPNL continues to fight it before the City of Laguna Beach and Coastal Commission. It’s troubling that one group can block for years fixing a dangerous traffic condition.

Throughout the state, CEQA has held-up affordable housing, schools, renewable energy projects, hospitals and many other desirable community projects, even when it “plays by the rules” and follows all applicable laws and regulations. Private development gets sued, but so do public works projects. In fact, according to a review of CEQA cases from 1997 to 2012 in the Appellate or California Supreme Court, 59% of those cases were filed against infill projects and 36% were filed against public works projects like schools, universities or roads.

CEQA modernization will ensure that projects conforming with California’s stringent environmental laws, local and federal regulations are able to move forward without the threat of lawsuits that have nothing to do with the environment.

Achieving these goals will not be easy, but meaningful CEQA reform can and should be accomplished this year. We urge legislators to make this a top priority. Begin the stakeholder meetings; start writing legislation; and let’s send the strongest message possible that California is willing to lead the world in modernizing its old claim to fame: CEQA. For more information contact Bryan Starr, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs.

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