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Op-Ed

CEQA: That '70s law

The California Environmental Quality Act was well intentioned, but it has become a job killer.

March 30, 2011|By Bill Allen and Maura O'Connor

It goes without saying: California desperately needs jobs. With unemployment hovering above 12% — second highest in the nation — too many Californians are living with the physical and psychological stress of being unemployed and living without any hope of a way out.

So why then do some of our elected officials still act as though we don't have a serious jobs crisis? Why are they refusing to examine certain politically untouchable, "third rail" laws, even though the original intent of some of these laws has been twisted and abused? One of the worst examples of this "don't dare broach the subject" form of policymaking is the misuse of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

Enacted in the 1970s, the goal of CEQA was — and continues to be — a noble one: to make sure that the public is provided with a good-faith assessment of the reasonably foreseeable environmental impact of a proposed project. This information would be considered by the permitting agency before it approved or disapproved the project. However, CEQA has expanded from a thoughtful review for environmental purposes to an unruly set of laws and regulations that add complexity, cost, delay and, most problematic, unpredictability, and too frequently have been exploited for non-environmental purposes. All of this hinders job creation and tax revenue generation.

It is not uncommon for businesses, such as retailers, to organize and fund groups to oppose developments by their competitors under the guise of CEQA. It's also become fairly common for groups with union ties to oppose projects on CEQA grounds in order to extract labor-friendly promises.

Finally, a cottage industry of CEQA lawyers and groups has emerged that oppose far too many developments, threatening or bringing litigation in hopes of simply exacting a financial settlement or "go away" money from the developer of a given project. This is using CEQA to manipulate the law for purposes that have absolutely nothing to do with protecting the environment. The purpose of CEQA was never to help businesses block competitors, help unions squeeze businesses for concessions or help CEQA lawyers enrich themselves.

Abuses of CEQA have proved to be extremely damaging to our economy as well as to our efforts to create what we need most: jobs. The "CEQA gone wild" state of affairs in California has deterred businesses from developing or expanding in the state. Just as important, nonenvironmental CEQA challenges significantly slow previously approved public infrastructure projects. All of this costs Californians jobs.

Just like treating cancer, our most adept lawmakers should perform careful surgery on the law to remove the malignant parts of CEQA that enable the worst abuses of this important and well-intentioned statute. A careful, reasonable approach should make two changes.

The first would be to improve transparency. Every person or group supporting or opposing a proposed project should have to disclose to the permitting agency its identity and that of its members, as well as who is paying its costs to support or oppose the project. This would allow the agency to evaluate whether opposition to a project actually helps protect the environment or attempts to use CEQA for non-environmental purposes.

Second, the state attorney general, as the "people's attorney," should be responsible for CEQA challenges, with the exclusive right to file suit once a project has been certified by its lead agency. This would eliminate the uncontrolled prerogative of any person or group to litigate a permitting agency's decision to approve a project. This would cull those parties who are intent on exacting nuisance settlements from developers, while still protecting a project opponent's right to comment during the very lengthy public review process and to petition the attorney general to file a suit once a project has been approved.

With these changes, the fundamental purpose of the law — to ensure the informed consideration of the environmental impacts of any project by the permitting agency — would remain strong. But the abuses of CEQA — its use for non-environmental purposes — would be greatly reduced. That surgery, swiftly done, might be the right cure for California's jobs crisis.

Bill Allen is chief executive of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.; Maura O'Connor is the organization's chairwoman.

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