The state has a neat little Internet search engine that, among other things, allows one to plug in some keywords and instantaneously find every legislative bill containing those words.
Inserting “California Environmental Quality Act” into the designated box reveals that there are 142 measures in the current biennial session that in some way pertain to the 48-year-old law signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Generally, CEQA requires that the potential environmental impacts of private and public construction projects, or state and local policy changes, be revealed and, if warranted, mitigated in some fashion.
In practice, however, CEQA has expanded over the decades to become a powerful tool for waging political and legal war, often with motives that have nothing to do with protecting the natural environment.
One example: CEQA objections by one property owner, a firm of attorneys, delayed for months the construction of a 20-unit low-cost housing project in downtown Redwood City by Habitat for Humanity, driving up its costs. The case was finally resolved in favor of the project last month.
Those kinds of misuses, along with the protracted political and legal processes attached to even sincere CEQA compliance, have given rise to many efforts to change the law, and even more efforts to get around it.
Gov. Jerry Brown experienced CEQA’s complexities first-hand when, as mayor of Oakland, he attempted to revive its downtown area.
Brown later called CEQA reform “the Lord’s work,” and as late as last year, urged reform as he vetoed a measure that would have prevented developers from bypassing CEQA by getting their projects approved by local voters at the polls.
“Instead of the piecemeal approach taken in this bill, I prefer a more comprehensive CEQA review, which takes into account both the urgent need for more housing and thoughtful environmental analysis,” Brown said in vetoing Assembly Bill 890.
Despite expressing verbal support for reform, however, Brown has been reluctant to make it a priority and his governorship probably will end in a few months with no major CEQA overhaul – which gets us back to those 142 bills.
Most of them would either exempt certain activities, or even specific projects, from CEQA, or provide fast-tracking for them.
Notwithstanding Brown’s criticism of “piecemeal approaches,” he and the Legislature have been quite willing to enact such loopholes while quite unwilling to do a comprehensive overhaul. They seem to like having wealthy developers come to the Capitol seeking favors – particularly sports team owners and their development partners on new arenas.
That’s how the 49ers football team and the Kings basketball team got fast-track treatment on CEQA for their new sports palaces and why Brown’s old city, Oakland, wants similarly favorable treatment for its plans to build a new baseball park that would keep the Oakland A’s from fleeing the city.
Brown and legislators even extend special CEQA treatment to themselves in another law affecting plans to construct a new office annex to the state Capitol.
The No. 1 subject of the proposed bills, however, is housing. In recognition of the state’s acute shortage of housing, one that has pushed home prices and rents into the stratosphere, dozens of measures would grant broad or narrow CEQA exemptions to housing projects, particularly those for low-income families.
Most, however, have collided with powerful environmental groups and labor unions that want to keep the law intact – and with the unspoken desire of Capitol politicians to maintain authority for narrow exemptions.
Self-evidently, they’d rather cater to sports moguls than address the critical need for new housing.