In the News


Brown's call for CEQA reform overdue

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1/26/13

"We ... need to rethink and streamline our regulatory procedures, particularly the California Environmental Quality Act. Our approach needs to be based more on consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays." -- Gov. Jerry Brown, State of the State address, Jan. 24, 2013

"(Brown) is very arrogant, He thinks he's smarter than everyone else." -- Gary Patton, former county supervisor, environmental attorney and defender of CEQA, to a Sentinel reporter after the governor's remarks.

Here's a couple of truths coming out of Gov. Jerry Brown's State of the State address:

1. He doesn't like what the California Environmental Quality Act could do to his plans for high speed rail -- or to other development projects.

2. By taking on the law, he's also incurred the wrath of organized environmentalism.

Here's what the Natural Resources Defense Council, for instance, had to say about the governor's call for changes in the environmental protection laws:

"We urge Gov. Brown to reject efforts to weaken the California Environmental Quality Act, which has provided protections against local pollution and health threats for residents for more than 40 years."

Some background. The California Environmental Quality Act was signed into law in 1970 by, of all people, Gov. Ronald Reagan. It was considered a major political and legislative move forward in the environmental protection, and predated the political movement that today is powerfully influential in California and Santa Cruz County.

Despite Reagan's role in establishing CEQA, and its support among environmentalists, it has long been criticized by Republicans, conservatives and business interests as burdensome and unfair.

With Brown's track record of ambivalence toward CEQA, opponents have become more vocal, calling for changes to prevent what they say has become an abusive misuse of environmental laws to bottle up projects in court. Last summer, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and other business interests -- advised by a top Brown political aide, Steve Glaser -- aired a proposal to dramatically limit the reach of CEQA. The group put together a proposal that, if it became legislation, would exempt certain projects from CEQA that comply with a city general plan or other planning document for which an environmental review already has been done. The group also said CEQA has not been updated to reflect changes in environmental laws.

"Most people would agree that if a school, a transit-oriented housing development or even a solar-power-generation facility had completed extensive environmental review and met all local, state and federal environmental-protection laws, then the project should be allowed to proceed without the threat of suit. Sadly, this is rarely the case," wrote representatives of the group.

Although Democrats control both houses of the state Legislature, party leadership has seemed willing to join Brown to reform CEQA, as California continues to move toward recovery from the 2008-09 recession.

But a state Senate bill to overhaul CEQA stalled last year due to pressure from environmentalists. That didn't stop Brown from continuing to push for reform. Which is why environmental attorneys such as Patton and other local environmentalists are not happy.

They see CEQA as perhaps the best chance of stopping high speed rail, or even Santa Cruz's proposal for a desalination plant. The act, they say, has forced local governments to take a more careful look at projects and to make changes that protect the environment.

CEQA, however, has too often beeen used by a variety of interests acting out of self-interest more than first wanting to further environental protections. CEQA lawsuits have contributed to California's reputation as a state unfriendly to business and overly regulated. The threat of lawsuits gets in the way of job creation and necessary development. Economic growth must be a top priority. The new Democratic supermajority in the Legislature should take up the governor's call to reform the California Environmental Quality Act.

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