The California Environmental Quality Act is one of those laws that generate unintended consequences, and need a fresh look.
Were I to write another book about California politics — which is very unlikely — it would be entitled “Unintended Consequences,” detailing how political policy decrees mutate to have unforeseen effects.
Examples of the syndrome are legion, but here are just two:
—In the 1960s, newly elected Gov. Ronald Reagan signed two pieces of legislation that purported to reform the care and treatment of the mentally ill. They set in motion a phaseout of the state’s extensive system of mental hospitals in favor of community mental health clinics. Reagan wanted to save money and advocates for the mentally ill had decried the prison-like, abusive atmosphere of the hospitals.
Reagan, successor governors and the Legislature never fully delivered on the promise of community mental health care, leaving many of the mentally ill then and since to fend for themselves and contributing to the homeless crisis that now afflicts the state.
—Two seemingly distinct acts in the late 1970s, the extension of collective bargaining rights to California’s public employees in 1975 and the passage of Proposition 13, the landmark property tax limit, in 1978, together led to public employee unions’ dominance of the Legislature.
Proposition 13 indirectly shifted financial responsibility for schools, and much of local government, to the state. As state and local workforces became almost totally unionized, the concentration of financial power in Sacramento gave unions the motivation to reshape the Legislature into an overwhelmingly pro-union body.
The California Environmental Quality Act, also signed by Reagan, is a third major example. Its stated aim was to compel sponsors of projects to evaluate their impacts on the environment and mitigate, as much as possible, adverse effects.
Over the more than half-century since its passage, however, CEQA has morphed into a legal morass that can stall even the most benign projects indefinitely as opponents raise objections that often have nothing to do with environmental protection.
It’s not uncommon, for example, for construction unions to threaten or file CEQA lawsuits in ill-disguised efforts to force project managers into giving their members exclusive access to jobs. CEQA has become so onerous that the Legislature often gives high-profile projects — such as sports arenas — specific exemptions from some of its provisions, including this year’s Super Bowl stadium in Inglewood.
CEQA is a major factor, although not the only one, in California’s inability to build enough housing, especially homes for low- and moderate-income families, to meet demand. Those who don’t want such housing in their neighborhoods use CEQA as a tool to stop construction, or delay it so long that it becomes financially unworkable.
The latest example of CEQA’s being bent for purposes never envisioned is occurring in Berkeley, where the city government and a group called Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods sued to block the University of California’s plans to expand enrollment.
Alameda County Judge Brad Seligman upheld their challenge to UC’s plans for a new academic building and faculty housing, declaring that the project’s CEQA studies were inadequate and did not fully account for impacts on noise, housing and displacement. The university was also ordered to freeze its enrollment at 2020-21 levels.
It’s the same sort of not-in-my-backyard attitude that has been so detrimental to bridging the gap between California’s housing needs and its housing production, and in this case will block access by several thousand students who had planned to enter the university.
CEQA’s unintended consequences cry out for reform, something former Gov. Jerry Brown once described as “the Lord’s work,” even though he was unwilling to take it on.
It still is.