By Stuart Leavenworth : sacbee.com – excerpt
For environmentalists in the Golden State, few laws are more sacred than the California Environmental Quality Act. Enacted in 1970, the law gives citizens and interest groups the power to challenge the decisions of local governments and state regulators and block projects they find objectionable.
Used at its best, CEQA has protected poor communities from toxic incinerators and landfills. It has helped conservationists stop big development projects in the wrong places, such as the sensitive Martis Valley near Lake Tahoe.
Yet because of its sweeping nature, CEQA has sometimes been abused in cities, undermining the kind of transit-friendly development that environmentalists say they support… (more)
can understand, to a degree, why environmentalists resist any real compromise. They feel under siege. Globally they (and we) are losing the battle to reduce greenhouse gases. Locally, they face an expansion of oil industry fracking and continued urban sprawl. Many are fed up with the politics of compromise that they feel leads to such defeats.
Yet environmentalists need to ask themselves: Is there a reform to CEQA that might actually advance their goals? Could there be a CEQA exemption that, as California grows, might reduce greenhouse gases instead of expand them?
There might be. Instead of the standards-based approach – which might allow jurisdictions to more easily approve sprawl-type projects – how about a CEQA exemption that helps us renew and green our cities?
The compromise I suggest would create a CEQA exemption for housing, transit and certain mixed-use projects within cities – and only cities. It would not apply to developments that counties might want in their unincorporated areas.
This exemption would not be a blanket pass. We could still require, for instance, that housing proposed for a “brownfields” site underwent a CEQA review for toxics. But if a project met certain conditions that were not of “state interest,” then cities could approve it with no CEQA review.
This compromise would still allow environmentalists to block leapfrog projects that threaten sensitive habitats. Yet by applying strictly to cities, it would give a leg up to projects that reused land and were near transit stations – filling in the empty lots that dot central Sacramento and so many cities.
This proposal would hardly avoid controversy. Counties and land speculators would fight it. Unions would seek to kill it, since it would limit their ability to use this environmental law to extract non-environmental concessions.
CEQA defenders may also claim it is unnecessary. They point to a 2011 law, Senate Bill 226, that allows infill projects to avoid environmental review if their potential impacts were addressed in a prior, program-level analysis done by local jurisdictions. Yet the law is so complicated, and is so dependent on state guidelines and local actions, that it is unclear if SB 226 will deliver real benefits.
Gov. Jerry Brown could be the force to bring this proposed compromise together, or something like it. The governor believes in “subsidiarity” – shifting responsibility from the state to local officials. CEQA could be modified to give elected city leaders more control. If environmentalists didn’t like those decisions, they could organize and elect new city leaders. That’s the way democracy is supposed to work… http://www.sacbee.com/2013/02/10/5176707/stuart-leavenworth-a-ceqa-advance.html#storylink=cpy