Lodi News-Sentinel

Will California’s misused environmen­tal law finally be reformed?


“Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it” is an old quip attributed — probably erroneousl­y — to Mark Twain.

It could be legitimate­ly applied to the California Environmen­tal Quality Act, a 53-year-old law originally meant to prevent government agencies from ignoring the impacts of their public works projects but later expanded, mostly by judicial decisions, to private developmen­ts as well.

CEQA’s use, or misuse, as a weapon in the state’s perpetual battles over housing has been well documented. Opponents of housing projects in their neighborho­ods use it to stall constructi­on and labor unions use it to leverage developers into agreements to use union workers.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown decried such uses and said reforming CEQA is “the Lord’s work” but was an agnostic about doing it, apparently convinced that opposition from environmen­tal groups and unions, two of the Democratic Party’s most influentia­l allies, would make reform impossible.

The Legislatur­e has been willing to exempt specific projects, such as sports arenas, from the CEQA process, as well as some narrow categories of housing. But the broad reform that CEQA’s critics say is necessary has long been a non-starter.

The politics of CEQA may be changing.

Last year, the state Supreme Court decreed in a suit against the University of California, that expanding the number of students admitted to UC Berkeley was an environmen­tal impact that had to be considered under CEQA.

The decision would effectivel­y have forced the university to turn away thousands of students it had planned to admit for the 2022-23 school year.

Moreover, the underlying concept of people as an impact would hand opponents of housing projects throughout the state a potentiall­y powerful weapon.

The plaintiff in that suit was a local organizati­on calling itself Save Berkeley’s Neighborho­ods, which alleged that having more students would degrade the community’s ambiance – very similar to the opposition of local groups to state-imposed housing quotas.

The Legislatur­e reacted with lightning speed, passing legislatio­n declaring that college enrollment is not a “project” requiring mitigation under CEQA.

However, another group, Make UC a Good Neighbor, had also filed a CEQA suit challengin­g both UC Berkeley’s long-range developmen­t plan and a UC housing project in UC-owned People’s Park, the site of numerous anti-war demonstrat­ions in the 1960s that today is mostly covered by homeless encampment­s.

Last week, a state appellate court rejected the challenge to UC’s developmen­t plan but declared that the People’s Park project needed more work and — more importantl­y — decreed that UC “failed to assess potential noise impacts from loud student parties in residentia­l neighborho­ods near the campus, a longstandi­ng problem that the EIR improperly dismissed as speculativ­e.”

If upheld by the state Supreme Court, the latter declaratio­n would once again give NIMBY opponents to housing developmen­ts a powerful weapon.

They could contend that housing for low-income families would bring noise or other undesirabl­e impacts to their neighborho­ods.

In a statement, Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted, “A few wealthy Berkeley homeowners should not be able to block desperatel­y needed student housing for years and even decades.

CEQA needs to change and we are committed to working with the legislatur­e so California can build more housing.”

It raises this question: How far are Newsom and the Legislatur­e willing to go on CEQA reform?

They could write a narrow exemption as they did on the previous UC Berkeley case, they could make a wider change affecting CEQA’s effect on housing, or they could go whole hog and do a top-to-bottom overhaul of the law to return it to its original purpose before it was weaponized.

Words are cheap. Only actions count.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to www.calmatters.org

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