Enemy of the State: CEQA
Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB
California likes to think it is the most environmentally-correct State in the Union. We created the California Environmental Quality Act -CEQA-as a test of how we treat our surroundings and protect the environment. The problem is, it’s antiquated and out of touch with the reality of today’s world.
Before I find rocks thrown through my front windows, let’s look at where we’ve been and where we have yet to go. CEQA was signed into law in 1970 by Governor Ronald Reagan with the intent of reducing potential environmental impacts of proposed projects. Since then, the underlying assumption is that all development is riskier and more dangerous than doing nothing. Nothing can be further from the truth. The future is going to require us to look at saving the environment while taking the thumb off the scale that favors maintaining status quo.
In Marin County, an abandon quarry was set to install 4272 solar panels on 11.5 acres. The project would have generated 1.98 MW of electricity, thanks to Marin Clean Energy using the nearby power grid. This was turned down by the Supervisors when neighbors lobbied vigorously, claiming the installation to be unattractive. The solar farm was attacked and ultimately turned down by Marin County strictly on aesthetics, not even for any reasonable environmental considerations.
CEQAs basic philosophy is, any physical change by a proposed project that can adversely affect the environment, the neighborhood, or your mother’s apple pie, can’t proceed without extensive studies, public hearings, mitigation requirements and ultimately modification.
That might be necessary for local communities with truly serious fragile environmental issues but we are now facing extreme Climate Change challenges that will require the pivoting of this Titanic state, the Queen of regulations. We will need vast solar, wind and tidal farms to wane us off our carbon addiction. If our future will be tied to a carbon- free world, we will require extensive infrastructure changes in a very short period of time. Climate Change is here now and we have to prepare to deal with it.
The public typically does not listen to developers or individuals trying to improve or repair something. In Los Angeles a developer trying to redevelop a 20 year vacant Montgomery Ward site has been stalled, not by NIMBYs, but by labor unions to force the project to use Union Labor. The misuse of CEQA has become a common complaint among developers in Los Angeles, who say they experience tremendous hurdles and increased costs as the result of frivolous lawsuits destroy indefinitely housing projects.
I’m sure a many Napan’s and a lot of Californians would like to say “no more housing!” But we need workers, we need healthcare providers and first responders. Who is going to wipe the drool from our chins when we’re old? Who is going to do our plumbing and how are we going to deal with the homeless issue unless we provide fast response guidelines, not kill them. Expediting CEQA does not mean eliminating environmental scrutiny of proposed projects. Instead, new guidelines that prescribe fast track methodologies and exceptions to speed things up.
The Legislature is considering a handful of bills to loosen CEQA’s rules. Governor Newsom has called for fast-tracking judicial CEQA review of housing projects. CEQA contains a section of Exceptions that could be expanded to allow more infill and green energy projects. Criteria must be generated make our state more energy efficient while protecting our environment. Infill sites should not be treated like third class citizens. Granted, the sites are left vacant or under-utilized because they are expensive to develop but now is the time to make them acceptable.
My argument is not that we should not do away with CEQA or eliminate environmental protection, but we must streamline the process and use it as a tool for bettering our environment, not arbitrarily protecting the status quo lifestyle of a few. Manipulation of CEQA must stop.
Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB says CEQA is pronounced “See Qua”