Bud­get deals ease ‘green’ rules

With ef­forts to change en­vi­ron­men­tal law stymied, Brown and law­mak­ers craft loop­holes for projects.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris Mege­rian and Pa­trick McGreevy

SACRA­MENTO — Jerry Brown has built a rep­u­ta­tion as an ar­dent en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist, but his ex­pe­ri­ence as Oak­land mayor taught him that too many reg­u­la­tions could stall or even stran­gle de­vel­op­ment.

Af­ter re­turn­ing to the gover­nor’s of­fice, he vowed to ease Cal­i­for­nia’s land­mark en­vi­ron­men­tal re­stric­tions, say­ing it would be “the Lord’s work.”

That ef­fort, re­sisted by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and pow­er­ful la­bor unions, sput­tered out two years ago. Since then, Brown and Demo­cratic law­mak­ers have in­stead struck deals giv­ing spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion to cer­tain projects rather than con­front the po­lit­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties of over­haul­ing the law.

This year is no ex­cep­tion, with sev­eral such ex­emp­tions forged be­hind closed doors and built into the bud­get that law­mak­ers are sched­uled to fi­nal­ize Fri­day.

Un­der those deals, wa­ter re­cy­cling and ground­wa­ter re­plen­ish­ment projects would re­ceive less en­vi­ron­men­tal scru­tiny. Re­views would also be ex­pe­dited for a $200-mil­lion high-rise de­vel­op­ment in Hol­ly­wood and a new arena for the War­riors bas­ket­ball team in San Fran­cisco.

Be­cause the ar­range­ments are tied to the bud­get, they are not sub­ject to the lengthy public re­view process re­quired of most pro­pos­als in the Capi­tol.

The piece­meal ap­proach to the 45-year-old Cal­i­for­nia En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity Act, a law that has been a light­ning rod for con­tro­versy, has frus­trated de­fend­ers and crit­ics alike.

Ann Not­thoff, di­rec­tor of

Cal­i­for­nia ad­vo­cacy for the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, de­scribed the ex­emp­tions as a “death of a thou­sand cuts.” She said the law is ad­e­quately f lex­i­ble, and skirt­ing it un­der­mines im­por­tant pro­tec­tions.

What Brown and law­mak­ers are do­ing “is a re­moval of citizen in­put into re­ally im­por­tant projects that have the po­ten­tial to change the na­ture of neigh­bor­hoods, and air and wa­ter qual­ity,” Not­thoff said.

Op­po­nents of the law dis­agree, say­ing it has been mis­used. They note that projects have been stalled by unions seek­ing bet­ter con­tracts for their la­bor­ers, busi­ness in­ter­ests try­ing to block com­peti­tors and res­i­dents who sim­ply don’t want de­vel­op­ment nearby.

Even some who sup­port looser rules say the lack of broad changes to the law cre­ates an un­even play­ing field.

“It’s not fair, sim­ply be­cause if you have re­sources and money, you can get things done,” said Hasan Ikhrata, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Assn. of Gov­ern­ments. “You can get peo­ple to lobby for you.... CEQA should be for ev­ery­one.”

Evan Westrup, spokesman for Brown, said the lack of a broad over­haul should not pre­vent ex­cep­tions for spe­cific projects.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tin­ues to sup­port com­pre­hen­sive CEQA re­form, but in the mean­time we are not go­ing to pass up op­por­tu­ni­ties to achieve tar­geted re­forms,

‘It is one of the tough­est is­sues to grap­ple with in the Leg­is­la­ture. There are very long-held, strong opin­ions on both sides.’ — Dar­rell Steinberg,

for­mer state Se­nate leader

like get­ting key wa­ter projects done in the face of Cal­i­for­nia’s drought cri­sis,” Westrup said in a state­ment Thurs­day.

While Brown was Oak­land’s mayor, he suc­cess­fully sought leg­is­la­tion in Sacra­mento that ex­empted from the law de­vel­op­ment in parts of Oak­land.

When he was elected gover­nor, Brown con­tin­ued to crit­i­cize state red tape, say­ing some rules are not nec­es­sary to safe­guard the en­vi­ron­ment.

“There are too many damn reg­u­la­tions,” he said in 2011.

He made the com­ment while sign­ing leg­is­la­tion to ex­pe­dite en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view of a football sta­dium pro­posed for down­town Los An­ge­les, a pro­ject that has since been side­lined.

That same year, Brown also ap­proved leg­is­la­tion that grants stream­lined re­views for ef­forts the gover­nor de­clares to be “lead­er­ship projects” — those val­ued at $100 mil­lion or more that cre­ate a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of jobs and meet high en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards. Le­gal chal­lenges to such projects also move faster.

The War­riors sta­dium and the Hol­ly­wood de­vel­op­ment were put on this fast track but are not in the clear yet be­cause they may not com­plete the re­quired en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion by Jan. 1. Sup­port­ive law­mak­ers in­serted into an un­re­lated bud­get bill a line giv­ing the projects an ex­tra year to have their re­ports cer­ti­fied.

State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Fran­cisco) said that with­out the new ac­tion, the War­riors arena pro­ject would “end up pay­ing a penalty for the good work … which in­cludes en­gag­ing the com­mu­nity and bring­ing along com­mu­nity sup­port.”

Op­po­nents of the War­riors plan ob­ject to what they see as an un­fair back-room deal.

“The city and the War­riors are us­ing the fast-track process be­cause the arena pro­posal is fa­tally f lawed and can­not stand up to pub- lic scru­tiny,” said Sam Singer, a con­sul­tant for the Mis­sion Bay Al­liance, a San Fran­cisco neigh­bor­hood or­ga­ni­za­tion.

In Hol­ly­wood, about 1,000 res­i­dents op­pose the mixe­duse, high-rise de­vel­op­ment planned for 8150 Sunset Blvd., which in­cludes a 16story build­ing. An­drew Macpher­son, trea­surer of the group Save Sunset Boule­vard, said av­er­age cit­i­zens are not be­ing heard as law­mak­ers rush to change the dead­line.

“It makes a mock­ery of democ­racy,” he said.

In 2013, an at­tempt by for­mer state Se­nate leader Dar­rell Steinberg (D-Sacra­mento) to make broad changes in the law ran aground in the face of op­po­si­tion from en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and unions. Ul­ti­mately, Steinberg nar­rowed his ef­forts sig­nif­i­cantly to fo­cus mainly on ex­pe­dit­ing con- struc­tion of a new arena for the Sacra­mento Kings bas­ket­ball team.

“It is one of the tough­est is­sues to grap­ple with in the Leg­is­la­ture,” Steinberg said this week. “There are very long-held, strong opin­ions on both sides.”

He added, “I just think the an­swer is to chip away, chip away, chip away, chip away.”

Kathryn Phillips of the Sierra Club said she op­poses an eas­ing of rules for projects in­volv­ing wa­ter re­cy­cling and ground­wa­ter re­plen­ish­ment.

“These are big public projects that could have an im­pact on lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties,” Phillips said. “Those are all things that need to be an­a­lyzed.”

Repub­li­cans, too, are frus­trated, al­beit for dif­fer­ent rea­sons: They have tried and failed to ob­tain shorter en­vi­ron­men­tal re­views for their own pri­or­i­ties.

Leg­is­la­tion to help speed con­struc­tion of new reser­voirs, for ex­am­ple, was shot down by the rul­ing Democrats this year even as they ne­go­ti­ated other projects in­tended to help with the drought.

“Pick­ing and choos­ing fa­vorite projects is not good pol­icy,” said Assem­bly­man James Gal­lagher (R-Ni­co­laus), au­thor of the reser­voir bill.

Rich Pe­dron­celli As­so­ci­ated Press

GOV. JERRY BROWN, with Se­nate leader Kevin de León, left, and Assem­bly Speaker Toni Atkins. Brown has urged eas­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal rules and has joined Demo­cratic law­mak­ers in fa­cil­i­tat­ing spe­cial projects.

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