CEQA Works: Protect Our Landmark Environmental Laws

big surIn recent articles many detractors offer their own reasons for her changing a 40-year-old law that works well. SF Examiner columnist Melissa Griffin on February 16, 2013, cites high-speed rail; Cynthia Murray rails against the loss of business, and Republican legislators and even some Democrats (notably Governor Jerry Brown) call for changes to prevent NIMBYism from delaying needed affordable housing.

Environmental impacts are many and varied, even for the most worthy of projects – including traffic, neighborhood character, visual and aesthetic properties, archeological qualities of a site, general plan consistency, habitat, greenhouse gas emissions and many more. When you’re talking about a statewide project of the magnitude of high speed rail, environmental review must be built into the cost to insure those impacts are kept to a minimum and mitigated where appropriate.

All these articles share a common characteristic. They accuse citizens who bring CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act ) lawsuits of being obstructionists, “anti-change” or just trying to delay a project for their own selfish purposes. They would like nothing more than to do away with the citizen enforcement provisions. But without the kind of oversight the general public and those most affected by big projects provide, lobbyists and the politicians they too often control will be free to push through polluting developments of all sorts.

CEQA works. As noted in a report by the Thomas Law Group, courts reject 50% of all projects challenged under CEQA. That means 50% of projects approved by local or State government have flawed environmental reviews. And this represents only the published cases. A very small percentage of any cases are published or even appealed in California. Yet even so, the fact that 50% of published cases, those that are appealed and deemed important enough to be published by the appellate court, are decided in favor of challengers should tell us something and it’s not that the law needs to be changed. It’s that it’s working. If a local or state governmental agency is not doing its job by approving projects that do not comply with California’s environment al regulations, we need an informed and active populace to make sure they do. Laws like CEQA insure that can happen.

CEQA doesn’t necessarily stop all such projects, but it makes the jurisdiction follow the law, and the project proponents perform needed mitigation measures, before approval takes place. If not, the average citizen has the right to file a lawsuit, and if they win, to have their attorneys’ fees and costs reimbursed. Without those provisions, there would be little incentive for developers or bureaucrats to do the right thing.

dotty lemieuxInstead of gutting CEQA, it should be strengthened. Governmental agencies would do well to abide by its provisions and avoid lawsuits in the first place, rather than moaning about the high costs of defending against them.

Dotty E. LeMieux

Dotty E. LeMieux is a San Rafael Environmental attorney working on behalf of individuals, citizen groups and public interest organizations. Please see the website www.CEQAworks.org for updates on the status of legislation and some powerful success stories.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Photo: Big Stock Photo


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    Corporate special interests and pork-barrel politicians and government empire-building bureaucrats all agree on detesting CEQA even in cases where nothing particularly environmental is at stake. That’s because CEQA is essentially the ONLY requirement for advance public accountability – advance revelation, let alone commitment to mitigation, of ANY kind of impact of an insider-proposed project. Were it not for CEQA and ‘environmental’ review, local and state legislative bodies could just do what they pleased, public be damned (and kept uninformed), to approve and impose any project they liked no matter what its costs to the public: ‘environmental’, ‘economic’, ‘social’ – or other.

    The author’s concluding statement is more than true. In fact, instead of gutting CEQA, the entire scope of mandated impact analysis and mitigation should be expanded, from just ‘environment’ to also ‘economy’ and everything else of consequence.

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