A broad coalition of business, labor, clean tech, schools, hospital, transportation, local government, affordable housing and other groups, including the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, has been working on developing CEQA reform policies over the past year. The group unveiled its policy proposals at a media briefing today (see below).
In the 40 years since CEQA was passed, Congress and the CA Legislature have adopted more than 120 laws to protect environmental quality in many of the same areas required to be independently mitigated under CEQA. These include laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Greenhouse Gas emissions reduction standards, SB 375 and more.
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.
Many lawsuits are brought for non-environmental reasons and often times these lawsuits seek to halt environmentally desirable projects like clean power, infill and transit.
The coalition has told the Governor and Legislature that it’s time to modernize CEQA to conform to California’s comprehensive environmental laws and regulations. Thoughtful CEQA reforms can preserve the law’s original intent – environmental protection – while preventing special interest CEQA abuses that jeopardize community renewal, job-creation and the environment.
The group urges the Legislature to consider the following principles:
1. Modernize CEQA to Integrate Updated Environmental and Planning Laws
- When the California Environmental Quality Act (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, including laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, GHG emissions reduction standards, SB 375 and more.
- 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.
- Many lawsuits are brought or threatened for non-environmental reasons and often times these lawsuits seek to halt environmentally desirable projects like clean power, infill and transit. CEQA is even working at odds with – instead of in concert with – important environmental laws like SB 375 and AB 32.
- CEQA should continue to serve as the state environmental law for environmental impacts not regulated by standards set forth in other environmental and planning laws adopted since 1970.
- However, where a federal, state or local environmental or land use law has been enacted to achieve environmental protection objectives (e.g., air and wetlands protections, etc.), CEQA review documents like EIRs should focus on fostering informed debate (including public notice and comment) by the public and decision makers about how applicable environmental standards reduce project impacts.
- State agencies, local governments and other lead agencies should continue to retain full authority to reject projects, or to condition project approvals and impose additional mitigation measures, consistent with their full authority under law other than CEQA.
2. Eliminate CEQA Duplication
- As originally enacted, CEQA did not require further analysis of projects that already complied with CEQA-certified plans such as General Plans. But a 1987 court decision dramatically changed CEQA’s application.
- We should return CEQA to its original intent and not require duplicative CEQA review for projects that comply with approved plans for which an environmental impact report (EIR) has already been completed – particularly since existing laws also require both plans and projects to comply with our stringent environmental standards.
- Local governments and other lead agencies should continue to retain full authority to reject projects or to condition project approvals and impose additional mitigation measures, consistent with their full authority under law other than CEQA.
3. Focus CEQA Litigation on Compliance with Environmental and Planning Laws
- CEQA lawsuits should focus on compliance with CEQA’s procedural and substantive requirements, including adequate notice, adequate disclosure, adequate mitigation of environmental effects not regulated by other environmental or planning law, adequate consideration of alternatives to avoid unmitigated significant adverse impacts.
- CEQA lawsuits should not be used to challenge adopted environmental standards, or to endlessly re-challenge approved plans by challenging projects that comply with plans.
- Environmental and other public advocacy efforts to enact environmental protection laws should not be affected by any CEQA reform, and refocusing CEQA on how compliance with standards and plans will reduce impacts can also inform advocacy efforts to revisit standards or plans.
- Finally, “real” environmental lawsuits – seeking to enforce true environmental objectives – can still be pursued against agencies that fail to make regulatory or permitting decisions in compliance with standards and plans. However, the current system of broad brush CEQA lawsuits that can be filed by any party for any purpose to challenge any or all environmental attributes of projects that comply with standards and plans are an outdated artifact of the “anything goes” environment of 1970, which now hinders both environmental improvement and economic recovery.
California is and can remain a leader in environmental stewardship, while at the same time promoting responsible investments in schools, clean technology, roads, mass transit, hospitals, infill development, housing, businesses and new jobs.