Urban Development: Playing Twister With The California Environmental Quality Act

Ventura, CA-KMART standing empty.jpg

When it comes to environmental issues, emotions often trump reasoned argument or sensible reform, especially in California. In Sacramento at our state capitol, real world impacts are abstracted into barbed soundbites. It’s the dialogue of the deaf as environmental advocates rally around our landmark California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) -- and economic interests decry it as “a job killer.” Perhaps the polarization can be put aside to ask about a specific example in the real world. Why does an old K-Mart sit vacant on Ventura’s busiest boulevard despite initial City approval for a Walmart store? All the thunder and lightning surrounding whether a Walmart belongs in Ventura is behind us. A vigorous and contentious debate (and a failed citizen initiative) have rendered the verdict that filling an empty discount retail space with a different discount retailer is a function of the market, not government regulation.

Nor can we directly blame the stalemate directly on the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). What keeps the store empty is not the controversial law itself, but the way it has been twisted like a pretzel into a tool to stop urban developments opposed by well-funded interests. Recently, the Los Angeles Times exposed the ironic way it has even been adapted by developers and big corporations to fend off their competition.

The California Environmental Quality Act is the toughest state environmental protection statute in the nation. Passed more than 40 years ago in the wake of the first Earth Day (and signed by Governor Ronald Reagan), CEQA has spawned an industry of specialist consultants, attorneys and planners. Its original laudable goals for managing natural resources have been obscured by the hard ball tactics of litigators in our state.

The vast majority of Californians support sensible environmental protections and are suspicious when business interests lobby to weaken them. They remember oil spills and toxic dumps and slash and burn hillside developments. Yet the case law that has grown up around CEQA is so burdensome that virtually any public or private project can be slowed or killed on bogus grounds that really have nothing whatever to do with protecting our natural environment.

Yes, the law has protected stands of redwood trees from clear-cutting and sensitive habitat from suburban sprawl. And there are David and Goliath stories: a little band of neighbors stop a mega-developer from flooding their neighborhood with traffic (although this is a long stretch from protecting “natural resources”.) But it is now routine for special interests to hire high-powered law firms to exploit the law for their own economic interests.

Here in Ventura, lawyers for construction unions combed over the Environmental Impact Report done for the new Community Memorial Hospital project with the goal of seizing on any technical errors or ambiguities. They fired off a thirty page “comment letter” which lays the groundwork for a lawsuit. The goal was certainly not “protecting the environment” — it was to pressure the hospital to use union labor for the construction. They were successful.

The proposed Walmart at the old K-Mart site is stalled after initial city approval because the company knows that even something as simple as changing the facade on the building could trigger a lawsuit alleging inadequate “environmental review.” So the project sits in limbo while Walmart analyzes its legal options. What Walmart fears is exactly what happened to WinnCo grocery, which did see its proposed new signage and facade challenged by a CEQA lawsuit.

There are lots of things not to like about development in a city. But that’s why we have planning commissions, public hearings and appeals to elected City Councils, along with detailed rules that must meet stringent legal guidelines for adoption and enforcement. But why have an elaborate land use entitlement and permit review process if it can be superseded by anyone with the resources to file a CEQA lawsuit? Democratic due process goes out the window, replaced by months or years of costly legal maneuvering.

No sensible person advocates repealing CEQA. But after forty years, it is past time to return to its original, laudable purpose and intent: to protect our natural environment and sustainably manage our natural resources.

Understandably, environmental advocates are skittish about tinkering with the law. There is precedent, however, for consensus reform. When the League of Conservation Voters pushed a bill to curb greenhouse gas emissions and promote sustainable regional planning, they won the support of both the League of California Cities and the Building Industry Association by incorporating a modest relaxation of onerous CEQA burdens on “infill development.” There’s lots more room for common sense consensus to separate environmental protection from a racket for special interest litigation.

One of the worst ways to proceed is to pick out individual projects for favorable CEQA treatment. That’s what’s happened on a couple of controversial stadium projects that won legislative relief from the typical CEQA procedural hurdles. Having to lobby Sacramento to pass a special law is a brutally stark example of special interest litigation. Football stadiums are not the only or even the most important projects held hostage by CEQA abuse. Comprehensive reform is long overdue.

In these economic times, the jobs lost to CEQA abuse aren’t offset by the ones created for CEQA experts and CEQA attorneys. California led the nation in protecting our state’s environment. If we can look past the symbolism that CEQA has assumed to both advocates and detractors, we’ll see that it’s urgent to restore the law’s original purpose and keep it from being hijacked for other agendas. That may be unlikely in today’s polarized political climate. That’s why it is crucial to bypass the soundbites and the symbolic posturing, and remember the real world fallout of failing to reform the way CEQA is administered in the Golden State.

Rick Cole is city manager of Ventura, California, and recipient of the Municipal Management Association of Southern California's Excellence in Government Award. He can be reached at RCole@ci.ventura.ca.us

Photo: The vacant K-Mart in Ventura, California