The California Environmental Quality Act can be preserved and reformed to limit abuses

After more than a year of study, California’s Little Hoover Commission has confirmed what many have long known: the California Environmental Quality Act needs reform.

The commission, which stands as an independent agency which investigates state policy issues and offers recommendations for reform, began holding hearings on CEQA in March 2023.

The commission credits the environmental protection law, which was signed in 1970 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, for offering important protections to the Golden State’s environment.

However, the commission concluded, “it is also true that CEQA, like any law, can have damaging, often unintended, consequences. It is an expensive and lengthy process that can add years to project timeframes. It can be used for purposes that have little relationship to environmental protection. Its strong bias toward the status quo means that it can be used to block projects that would help improve the environment.”

Hundreds of CEQA lawsuits are filed every year. While some might raise legitimate issues, many often don’t and are intended to throw a wrench into planned developments.

A 2015 report by Jennifer Hernandez and David Friedman found that, “Sixty-four percent of those filing CEQA lawsuits are individuals or local ‘associations,’ the vast majority of which have no prior track record of environmental advocacy — and CEQA litigation abuse is primarily the domain of Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) opponents and special interests such as competitors and labor unions seeking non-environmental outcomes.”

As frequently noted in these pages, there’s a reason why Gov. Jerry Brown referred to CEQA reform as “the Lord’s work.” Brown recognized that reforming the law to prevent abuses of it was necessary, but also recognized that getting reforms through was a tall task. And so, to date, the Legislature has mostly stuck to incremental tweaks or just outright exempting specific projects or types of projects from the law.

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The Little Hoover Commission also calls for targeted reforms to the law. This includes following Washington state’s lead in exempting new housing within urban growth boundaries from environmental review. This would free much development from delays or legal threats.

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“California will never achieve its housing goals as long as CEQA has the potential to turn housing development into something akin to urban warfare—contested block by block, building by building,” the commission notes.

Other recommendations include strengthening standing requirements for those who wish to use the law to sue under CEQA, “establish clear parameters for significance thresholds and for analysis and mitigation of impacts,” and improving processes to prevent “data dumps” and “late hits” against  projects.

These are all worthy of consideration.

Indeed, it is time for the Legislature to not just talk about talking about CEQA. It is time for the Legislature to take seriously the need to reform the California Environmental Quality Act in a way that is fair and responsible. We can and should protect the environment without all the abuses of the law.

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