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How an Environmental Law Is Harming the Environment

California's signature environmental law needs to be reformed because NIMBYs are using it to block smart growth.

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Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat who represents Sacramento, is an advocate for smart-growth and is expected to take a more cautious approach to reform now that Rubio is gone. Steinberg is the author of SB 375, a landmark climate-change law enacted in 2008 that is designed to increase urban density in California. Nonetheless, several prominent environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, still oppose the push for CEQA reform this year out of concern that the legislature will render the law toothless.

"They're not really talking about making it easier for infill development in Oakland and Berkeley," argued Kassie Siegel, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, which has used CEQA and other environmental laws to fight highway expansions and other projects in suburban and rural areas, and even in cities when developments threaten endangered species. "They're talking about gutting CEQA."

Siegel and other environmentalists also point out that CEQA lawsuits are not nearly as common as often portrayed. Some studies have shown that no more than 1.5 percent of all public agency decisions that involve CEQA result in lawsuits. And they note that a 2011 law, SB 226, helped streamline approvals for environmentally sustainable development. SB 226, for example, exempts solar power systems installed on existing roofs or over parking lots from CEQA lawsuits.


However, fears that the legislature will gut CEQA this year appear to be overblown — precisely because some environmental and labor groups (the labor community is divided over whether to reform the law) fervently oppose such a plan. It seems farfetched to believe that Democrats will vote for proposals that substantial portions of their two main constituencies don't want.

And that's a good thing. CEQA still has a vital role to play in protecting our environment — as it should. One would be hard-pressed to make a case for reforming an environmental law so as to green-light more suburban development or more pollution-causing projects.

We also still need environmental protections in urban areas for industrial projects that put people's health at risk. Likewise, environmental protections in cities like Berkeley and Oakland remain critically important when it comes to open space areas, including the hills and the shoreline.

But for urban centers and areas on or near major transit corridors, there's still plenty of room for reform. Changing the Cortese List rules and the "fair argument standard" is a good place to start. But that doesn't go far enough. City dwellers who don't want more traffic in their neighborhoods shouldn't be able to use the state's main environmental law to block projects that actually help the environment overall.

And this misuse of the law likely won't stop as a result of incremental reform. Instead, the only sensible solution is to exempt all smart growth — urban transit-oriented development projects that are designed for housing or a mix of retail or commercial space and housing — from CEQA lawsuits.

Our primary environmental law should protect the environment against the greatest threat it faces — climate change — and not make it harder to implement solutions that help fight that threat.

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