Will Anyone Defend CEQA?

Tranparency In Action
Tranparency In Action

The list of those who hope to roll back all or part of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is a long one: Billionaire developers and real estate moguls, the world's largest retailer, some advocates of densifying cities and suburbs, and Governor Brown and the state legislature (at least when it's politically expedient).

They've been increasingly successful in demonizing CEQA as a job killer, NIMBY-ist coddler, sprawl defender, and development strangler.

Except CEQA isn't a land use law. It's fundamentally a transparency statute. CEQA requires state and local agencies to consider the environmental impacts of private and public development projects (except those that are categorically exempt) and to make their environmental impacts public, along with measures that might mitigate those impacts.

Mitigation measures that are deemed "feasible" by a city council or a county board of supervisors become part of the project's entitlements.

CEQA has blind spots. As a result of 40 years of case law, CEQA ignores the social and economic effects of development projects, although most of us would include neighborhood cohesion under the definition of environmental quality. Some exemptions in the law are crude fig leafs for projects that should be examined more closely. And it requires work, a diligent news media, and luck to become sufficiently well informed to understand the environmental risks a proposed development poses.

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As a practical matter, compliance with CEQA is left to city and county staff members during the plan check and construction inspection process. When mitigation requires the property owner to commit to on-going activities, local governments rarely have the staff to monitor what's being done, particularly years after a project is completed.

The current CEQA process is far short of ideal. CEQA affects buildings far more than it does behaviors. The results are so piecemeal and short-sighted - and so political - that real community interests are often ignored. And given the scope of CEQA - in effect, nearly everything that's built - it's understandable that CEQA regulations are used cynically as a weapon that developers deploy to poison the plans of rivals or by community members as a barrier for obstructing reasonable change.

(Wal-Mart, as reported by California Watch, adopted a different strategy, threatening cities with costly special elections to get around CEQA's often lengthy reviews.)

CEQA was - and is - a compromise. And that compromise is breaking down under the combined impacts of the national recession, growing corporate power, malicious litigators, and a degraded political culture. But CEQA, for all its faults, is often all that we have between the quality of our lives together and those who only have contempt for such sentimental values as "quality of life."

So I wonder . . . who will be left to defend CEQA . . . and us?


D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.


The image on this page was taken by flickr user Alhambra123. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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