In summary

California is overdue for CEQA reform that offers more than exemptions for sports stadiums, luxury offices and pet projects of the politically powerful.

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By Tracy Hernandez

Tracy Hernandez is the founding CEO of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, “BizFed.”

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Lucy Dunn

Lucy Dunn retired in December 2021 from her post as president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council after 16 years at the nonprofit business organization.

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Jennifer Hernandez, Special to CalMatters

Jennifer Hernandez has practiced land use and environmental law for more than 30 years and leads Holland & Knight’s West Coast Land Use and Environmental Group.

For more than 50 years, California’s signature environmental law has mission-creeped far beyond its original purpose to assess the potential impacts of new projects on air, water, traffic congestion and wildlife habitats. 

The California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, is now routinely used to stop any project, of any size, in any neighborhood, funded by any public or private means, when anyone doesn’t like it.

That bar is too low and certainly not intended when the law was enacted. CEQA was famously called a “blob” by former Gov. Jerry Brown because its reach is so amorphous. Under the guise of “environmental concern,” that blob has metastasized and continues to spread unchecked.

The extent of CEQA overreach hit a new mark recently when the California Supreme Court expanded it to exclude one-third of the University of California, Berkeley’s incoming class from campus. Students are the latest targets of CEQA lawsuit abuses. According to the courts, people are “significant adverse impacts” to the environment because they – and not the buildings they occupy – take showers and drive cars. 

Nobody is immune from CEQA abuse. San Francisco school board members found their hands tied when a CEQA lawsuit demanding “environmental review” blocked their bid to remove an on-campus mural depicting violence against Native Americans. 

CEQA litigation also stalled reconstruction of a single-family home in Berkeley (a project supported by neighbors and city council members) for 11 years. The property owners eventually left Berkeley to raise their children, leaving the home untouched – exactly as demanded by plaintiffs waving the “Not-In-My-Backyard” (NIMBY) flag.

Housing is the top target of CEQA. A study of all CEQA lawsuits filed in Southern California over three years found more than 14,000 housing units were targeted. Even though environmental advocates want housing to be built at higher densities in urban neighborhoods served by transit, 98% of these CEQA lawsuits challenged projects planned in existing communities, 78% were in transit priority areas, and 70% were in whiter, wealthier and healthier communities. CEQA’s inconvenient truth is clear: courts are used to protect the “existing environment” against change. 

For all of so-called Progressive California’s talk of diversity, equity and inclusion, nothing could be more racially discriminating than CEQA’s track record of redlining. While more communities of color are victims of California’s housing, poverty and homelessness crises, the high cost of housing and living harms tech workers paying $5,000 rents, as well as families of color shut out of homeownership – both groups fleeing to more affordable states like Texas.

As to graduating high schoolers headed to Cal? Good luck. These young adults survived the pandemic and made the cut only to learn they’re now considered “environmental impacts” whose education could be thwarted by aging hippie NIMBY-Boomers and an indulgent judiciary insistent that CEQA be “broadly construed to protect the environment.”

As long as the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration refuses to address these fundamental abuses, California will never be able to take full advantage of federal infrastructure funding, nor will the state make a dent in solving its pervasive housing crisis. This leaves minorities, middle-class families and our young workforce literally without a roof over their heads.

Under CEQA in its current form, we are doomed to endless litigation, rising costs and counterproductive delays. We are overdue for CEQA reform that offers more than exemptions for sports stadiums, luxury offices, prisons and pet projects of the politically powerful. We need real reform for real people – including our education-seeking children.

Jackie Kennedy once said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” California leaders are bungling this, big time, and the nation is watching.


Tracy Hernandez has also written about building an endemic economy.

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