Letter to the Editor: A response to California Environmental Quality Act columns

The California Environmental Quality Act is the only state law that ensures the public has a chance to weigh in on major land use decisions.

Attorney Daniel Coffey has recently opined on potential reforms to the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. (Jan. 17, 2013: "Think audaciously: time to improve CEQA"; Jan. 24, 2013: "Perverse incentives in CEQA/NEPA foster global warming").

While Mr. Coffey’s history doesn’t show him to possess pressing environmental concerns (aside from a desire to streamline profitable projects that represent both wins and losses for natural resources), this discussion of CEQA reform is timely.

The California Environmental Quality Act, as written and applied, remains a powerful and necessary tool to move California forward in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner.

Locally, the failures of San Diego Association of Governments’ (SANDAG) 40-year, $200 billion Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) to comply with CEQA specific to long-range climate disruption impacts is an example of appropriate CEQA litigation. Without the construct of CEQA (despite SANDAG’s failures to meet its requirements), San Diegans would never have learned that the first application of SB 375 was woefully inadequate in the long term. Rather than reduce or even maintain carbon emissions, over the next 50 years implementation of SANDAG’s transportation plan would exponentially increase these.

However, such litigation is extremely infrequent. Most successful applications of this environmental protection tool engage the community, provide improvements to developments and projects which effect habitat and neighbors, and reduction of impacts such as air pollutants and other hazards.

In fact, less than 1 percent of all projects are actually challenged in court through the California Environmental Quality Act. The Public Policy Institute of California found that only 1 in 354 environmental reviews ends up in court, and a much higher percentage of these challenges are successful than typical civil disputes.

As a California business owner, I believe that any regulations impacting operations and profitability should serve a worthy purpose. In the case of the California Environmental Quality Act, I want to not only grow my company in an economically sustainable manner, but I want to ensure my business practices allow future generations the same enjoyment of natural resources we are currently afforded.

Adding industry loopholes to exempt development projects and major polluting industries from real environmental review does not serve the best interests of a healthy California – both for residents and to ensure vibrant tourism and economic viability in the future.

As recently discussed by Bruce Reznik of Planning and Conservation League:

“The argument that CEQA is responsible for California's economic woes is a red herring. Since this law was adopted, California has experienced at least as much economic boom as bust. The recent extended recession is directly linked to overbuilding of sprawl-type subdivisions. Ironically, this overbuilding could have been prevented had CEQA been applied more vigorously.” While one can argue project-specific woes seemingly induced by compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, we should ensure no harm is done to the present and future communities it serves in amending it. A long-term vibrant California economy is at stake. Let’s not lose sight of that for the short-term gain of a few.

-- Belinda Smith

Partner at Gary Manufacturing; executive producer, "The Cycle of Insanity: The Real Story of Water." Former co-chair of Know Your H2O, and current advisory board member, The Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Chapter.

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