Mercury News editorial: CEQA reform must be top priority for Legislature in 2013
Mercury News Editorial
As Democrats contemplate what to do with their new super-majority power in the Legislature, they should avoid Republicans' worst fears: tax increases to restore depleted services. Nearly 2 million Californians remain unemployed. Economic growth must be a top priority. And one of the best ways to accomplish it is to reform the California Environmental Quality Act.
The law, known as CEQA, requires local governments to analyze the environmental effects of development projects and look for ways to mitigate them. It's one reason the state has been able to preserve its natural beauty -- a central component of its attraction for residents and businesses -- and it has given residents a strong voice in community development.
But it is too often abused by a whole range of interests: NIMBYs to protect their personal interests, labor unions as a weapon to demand contracts and businesses to stop competition, to name just a few. As one example, a competitor of Moe's Stop gas station in San Jose used the law to prevent Moe's from adding pumps.
These challenges often prevent development that could create jobs or help businesses survive without harming the environment, and they contribute to California's reputation as unfriendly to business. Four decades after Ronald Reagan signed CEQA into law, it's time for an update.
With the help of Silicon Valley Leadership Group President Carl Guardino, a statewide coalition has been working with CEQA experts to develop reforms that prevent abuses while maintaining the law's intent. The proposals were discussed briefly in Sacramento as the legislative session ended, but they were too complex to be passed quickly. We hope to see them revived and fully debated next year:
· Coordinating CEQA reviews with environmental regulations. For example, if a project complies with water quality laws, a judge shouldn't be able to stop it on water-quality grounds as part of a CEQA challenge.
· Limiting when a CEQA lawsuit can be filed.
· Improving record-keeping to speed up the court process.
· Requiring transparency in the courts -- as in politics -- so the public can see who's behind the challenges. Often, it's not environmentalists.
Reform opponents say CEQA lawsuits are few, and they're right. But the threat of a lawsuit changes what businesses do and where they try to build. Sometimes that's for the best, but often it's a needless deterrent to job creation.
Reforms could actually enhance some environmental protections. Infill, which is building in already developed areas -- far preferable to sprawl into open land -- is often challenged by NIMBY neighbors. And for developers, nothing increases costs like project delays. Reforming CEQA would make infill projects more attractive to builders.
Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate President Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez all have promised reform. It's a perfect opportunity to show Californians they're serious about using their super-majority power responsibly.