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In Defense of CEQA, the 'Bill of Rights for Environmental Democracy'

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Posted every Monday (see archives), the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated by a variety of experts we've been polling - are considered to have been either beneficial to the city or malevolent. The laws may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority.

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.
Law: California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)
Year: 1970
Jurisdiction: State of California
Nominated by: Douglas Carstens
Previously nominated by: Kevin Klowden

Earlier this year, Laws That Shaped L.A. featured a think tank expert discussing the California Environmental Quality Act, or as it is universally known, "CEQA."

In that column, the expert, Kevin Klowden, passed along some of the opinions and analysis of CEQA that he says he routinely hears from business people and others in his role as the Milken Institute's Managing Economist and Director of the Institute's California Center.

Following publication, I heard from a couple of environmental attorneys who concurred that CEQA was indeed a law that shaped and shapes L.A., but otherwise weren't so enthralled.

One of those attorneys is Douglas Carstens. He's a partner in Chatten-Brown & Carstens, a firm specializing in environmental land use issues from the petitioners and plaintiff's side. "Which means," Carstens says, "the people trying to enforce the environmental laws."

Carstens invited me to his Santa Monica office to talk further about CEQA. He shared his first-person experiences working on CEQA-related cases. He spoke at length about how those experiences leave him convinced that CEQA is as necessary and vital as it is constantly under what he considers inaccurate attack from certain moneyed interests.

"What CEQA is really good for and good at doing is giving communities and the public a voice in public process," Carstens says. "It's been called a 'Bill of Rights for environmental democracy.'"

In the original CEQA column, I included this background information and segue:

CEQA, as described by the California Natural Resources Agency website, 'is a statute that requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible.'The landmark law also deputizes all Californians to assist with enforcement. 'CEQA is a self-executing statute,' the website text reads. "Public agencies are entrusted with compliance with CEQA and its provisions are enforced, as necessary, by the public through litigation and the threat thereof.'The four decades since CEQA's passage have coincided with significant environmental improvements in the Golden State and beyond. That's thanks in part to development and infrastructure projects undertaken and improved due to CEQA as well as to potentially eco-harmful projects denied permission to proceed. That doesn't, however, mean CEQA is universally considered to be ideal legislation.

When Carstens and I met up, he didn't specifically object to the "universal" characterization, above. But the attorney did say that he thinks of CEQA as empowering the 99% -- the general public -- to have a say in conversations that might otherwise be limited to the likes of politicians and well-connected developers.

"You have the one percent in City Hall and [the people] proposing these large projects for their own kind of gain," Carstens says. "Well, what about the regular people on the street or in the houses or in the neighborhoods? Or everyone who will be affected adversely by these things -- whether by the traffic or the air pollution that will go in the lungs of them and their children? How do they get involved and affect public policy decisions?"

Carstens sees CEQA as a boon to transparency and public accountability. He also sees this as a rare (at most, he says, four other states have a CEQA-style law) or a unique (California's is stronger than the others) state law. And he sees CEQA as part of an environmental law toolkit that includes federal legislation such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. (The latter, which dates to the same 1970 year as CEQA, was featured here in the Laws That Shaped L.A.)

Carstens is used to reading and hearing what Kevin Klowden is told. But instead of simply reporting those views or sympathizing with them, Carstens takes on CEQA critics by stating that in addition to its other positives, the Act is an economic plus for the state.

"I would say it promotes economic progress because of the way it protects the environment," Carstens says, "and California's vibrant economy is founded on a lot of the special environment here."

Carstens also stresses his view that CEQA doesn't keep development from occurring. "It stops unexamined and highly damaging aspects of development," he says. "But once things are figured out and pollution is reduced and impacts are mitigated, then development can go right ahead."

The attorney says that the Public Policy Institute of California did a study that found that less than five percent of development projects reviewed by public agencies are then required to conduct an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). "And then of those approvals," Carstens says, citing the study's look at the years 1986-1990, "only one in 354 ever gets to court - 0.3%."

"Proponents, polluters, developers [who say] that CEQA litigation is out of hand or that there's too much of it, I would disagree with that," Carstens says. "I think they're bellowing it way out of proportion for their own kind of gain and particular purposes."

In the previous CEQA column, I wrote:

[H]ow has CEQA physically shaped the city? It's hard to prove a negative. What would Los Angeles and neighboring areas look and live like without CEQA? The 710 Freeway would have gone through South Pasadena. 'Swaths of the Sierra Nevada, Mojave Desert and coastline' would not have been preserved, according to an L.A. Times story last fall.

During our meeting and in a series of emails, Carstens brings up various other examples. This includes the creation of two state parks along the L.A. River. These parks are familiar to Departures readers - see this and this. Also, I worked here and fellow Departures columnist Robert Garcia worked with Carstens' firm and others to successfully challenge City approval of a non-parks-related use for the land.

In addition to the two state parks, Carstens also recounts how CEQA kept a trash incinerator out of Vernon; kept oil development out of Blair Hills; brought a park to El Sereno; allowed the City of Walnut to have its say about a proposed football stadium in the neighboring City of Industry; and made certain that a health care facility was part of a redevelopment where a clinic had then stood. "Nothing wrong with luxury residential developments, you need them too," Carstens says, "But you also need health care facilities for public health."

Carstens also points to this Huffington Post piece by Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Joel Reynolds**. And Carstens points out the seventy-five or so projects listed in this 2005 report by the Planning and Conservation League: "Everyday Heroes Protect the Air We Breathe, the Water We Drink, and the Natural Areas We Prize: Thirty-Five Years of the California Environmental Quality Act."

That report credits CEQA with the likes of "keeping the Santa Monica Mountains pristine" and "rethinking the Century Freeway." It also calls CEQA "California's premier environmental law," and says something critics would surely agree to as well: "No other environmental law has had such broad reach."

The report's preface, by former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp, asks, "How does one protect oneself against the onslaught of growth, development, and harmful industrial practices? How do we ensure that future generations inherit a cleaner, healthier California? Answer: By enforcing the exercise of care. That's what CEQA is all about. Care."

Or, as Carstens says, "All [we've] got is this one environment, this one world, so let's save it. Not, you know, wreak havoc on it."

To suggest a Law That Shaped LA, or to suggest someone else to ask for their key law or laws, please leave a comment below, respond via Departures Facebook page and Twitter feed, or email editor Jeremy Rosenberg at arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com.

**Joel Reynolds spoke at a weekly lecture series Jeremy Rosenberg used to co-organize.

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