Putting Developers’ Environmental Impact to a Vote in California

By : urbanland – excerpt

Last year, the California Supreme Court ruled that a project proposed through the citizen initiative process and subsequently approved by a council—without a public vote—was exempt from a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review, overturning a lower court decision. Now, a project can avoid months of costly CEQA-related delays if a developer raises enough signatures for an initiative and the council or board simply ratifies the project.

Several projects have already used the voter initiative route, including the backers of National Football League stadiums proposed earlier this year in Inglewood and Carson. In August, the municipal government of Carlsbad, a coastal community north of San Diego, approved a master plan for 203 acres (82 ha) along the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, including a shopping center proposed by Caruso Affiliated, after the developer gathered 20,000 signatures for an initiative.

More and more developers are expected to use this process, which opponents say is simply a loophole in the CEQA process. “I think we’ll see more of it and unfortunately I think it will be the larger developments, the ones that really need CEQA the most,” said Livia Borak, an attorney with the Coast Law Group, an Encinitas, California–based law firm focused on environmental issues.

CEQA was hailed as a groundbreaking attempt to ensure environmental protections when it was signed into law in 1970 by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. But CEQA’s role has changed in recent years, as project opponents used different CEQA provisions to launch lawsuits against developments, adding months and, in some cases, years to the development process. “There are few state laws developers loathe more than the California Environmental Quality Act,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in a recent editorial.

“People have been arguing for a long time that it needs reform,” said Greta Brownlow, an adjunct professor in the San Jose State University department of urban and regional planning and an associate with LSA Associates, a consultancy… (more)

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