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Viewpoints: Preserve CEQA's goals, end its abuses

Published: Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013 - 9:12 am

During his State of the State address, Gov. Jerry Brown laid out his vision of investing in public infrastructure, reinvesting in public schools and universities, assuring a safe and reliable water supply, and shifting toward cleaner energy. To accomplish these goals, the governor called on state leaders to engage in a number of necessary actions including meaningful regulatory reform, with particular focus on modernizing the 40-year-old California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

As three former California governors who often have differing views, on this point we wholeheartedly agree, and join with Gov. Brown in his call to modernize CEQA. While CEQA's original intent must remain intact, now is the time to end reckless abuses of this important law – abuses that are threatening California's economic vitality, costing jobs and wasting valuable taxpayer dollars.

Yes, CEQA has been an important law that for 40 years has protected our environment, resulted in better informed planning and assured more public input and involvement in community growth decisions. These aspects of CEQA must be preserved.

But over time, CEQA has also become the favorite tool of those who seek to stop economic growth and progress for reasons that have little to do with the environment. Today, CEQA is too often abused by those seeking to gain a competitive edge, to leverage concessions from a project or by neighbors who simply don't want any new growth in their community – no matter how worthy or environmentally beneficial a project may be.

Sadly, documented cases of CEQA abuse include examples where CEQA has stood in the way of renewable energy projects, infill housing, schools, hospitals, universities, public transit and needed infrastructure. In fact, CEQA is often a direct barrier to the sustainable and environmentally friendly growth that California aspires to achieve.

Done right, CEQA modernization will not only end abuses, but will also help quicken our state's economic recovery and work to protect taxpayer resources.

Along these lines, data presented during a recent economic summit of the Southern California Association of Governments illustrate just how impactful CEQA modernization could be in preventing lengthy project delays. For example, Caltrans reports that currently the average major transportation project in our state takes 17 years to complete – one of the longest timelines in the country – and CEQA is often a major cause of such delays.

Looking at this issue, economists for the Southern California Association of Governments took five years' worth of projects contained in their recently adopted Regional Transportation Plan and calculated the economic benefit of completing those projects just five years sooner. They found that accelerating the projects would annually save taxpayers more than $1.25 billion on construction costs and create an additional 102,000 construction jobs and more than 200,000 non-construction jobs each year for five years. These 300,000 new jobs would be particularly significant given that California currently has the third-highest unemployment rate in the country. Further, by accelerating these transportation projects, new jobs and economic activity are created sooner, rather than later, resulting in an overall economic benefit of $156 billion in positive impact to the region's GDP over five years.

These findings impacting Southern California are impressive. Imagine applying these benefits to all projects statewide and you can see just how powerful CEQA and regulatory reform could be in expediting economic recovery, creating jobs and saving significant taxpayer dollars throughout California.

While there have been past efforts at CEQA reform, most of these have ultimately resulted in various exemptions. Although helpful, CEQA exemptions tend to work around the underlying problems without fixing them. Modernization addresses this by making smart adjustments to CEQA standards and practices such as requiring petitioners to disclose their economic interests; adding certainty to the CEQA timeline; avoiding duplicative CEQA reviews; and lessening opportunities for unjustified litigation and delay.

We must update this 40-year-old law so that it better integrates and coordinates with the hundreds of newer environmental protection mandates adopted since CEQA's passage, instead of requiring redundant and inconsistent reviews, as present law requires.

For example, today a project could meet all of the Clean Air Act mandates required of it and still be challenged under CEQA over the project's air impacts. In this way CEQA leaves even the best intended and environmentally friendly projects that have complied with the extensive body of environmental laws and regulation vulnerable to litigation.

We must tackle this important issue now. Reforming is never easy. But with leadership, reason and determination we can bring CEQA into the 21st century, and in doing so accelerate California's economic recovery, end abusive litigation, obstruction and delay, and restore California's environmental and economic balance so that our state can remain both green and golden. In the words of Gov. Brown, "Let's go out and get it done."

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