The California Environmental Quality Act has been updated or revised repeatedly since Gov. Ronald Reagan helped usher it into existence in 1970. By at least one count, 334 sections of the state's environmental review law have been modified since 1990, including 83 sections in just the past five years.
CEQA is due for another one.
That has been the broad consensus for several months, but the effort picked more momentum last week when, in his Jan. 24 State of the State address, Gov. Jerry Brown declared, "We ... need to rethink and streamline our regulatory procedures, particularly the California Environmental Quality Act. Our approach needs to be based more on consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays."
Brown is no doubt thinking about his legacy project, California High Speed Rail, for which CEQA, applied in all its full-force glory, would wreak havoc. But CEQA's critics -- and there are many, most of them Republicans -- have plenty of other reasons to seek revisions. Chief among them is the belief, increasingly valid, that CEQA is employed as a sort of development fillibuster, an abusive misuse of the law that intentionally creates delays and paperwork headaches that slow and ultimately kill projects. Some of these efforts are motivated by legitimate environmental concerns, but increasingly they are seen as roadblocks created by self-interested parties.
One of the consequences of these CEQA lawsuits is a furtherance of California's reputation as an overly regulated, business-unfriendly state.
Advocates for change brought forth a proposal last summer to cut back dramatically on CEQA's reach.
Their proposal, not yet in the form of legislation, would exempt certain projects from CEQA review that meet the criteria of existing planning documents for which environmental reviews have already been accomplished.
"Most people would agree that if a school, a transit-oriented housing development or even a solar-power-generation facility had completed extensive environmental review and met all local, state and federal environmental-protection laws, then the project should be allowed to proceed without the threat of suit. Sadly, this is rarely the case," representatives of one such advocacy group, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, wrote last year.
Make no mistake, however: CEQA has done some good things. As Thomas Adams, former board president of the California League of Conservation Voters, recently wrote in the Sacramento Bee, CEQA findings "led to the preservation of the Santa Monica Mountains ... (and) kept sewage out of vital bodies of water such as San Francisco Bay and Newport Bay. ... CEQA has required freeways to make room for transit. It has required the Department of Food and Agriculture to consider the effects on schools, hospitals, nursing homes and parks before it authorized spraying of pesticides."
Can the Legislature rewrite or modify CEQA in ways that lift overly burdensome restraints on business, state infrastructure development and other important projects that have already undergone environmental review without limiting the law's core intent? That should be its charge going forward.