It seemed like such a good idea.
In 1970, Governor Ronald Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act, otherwise known as CEQA. Praised on arrival, CEQA ensured that future developments would respect both the environment and the surrounding community by requiring a careful review process prior to a project’s approval. Yet over the years, CEQA has become inefficient and corrupted. The process can be so burdensome that it drives up the price of building, thereby hampering needed growth and making the state less competitive. It has also been used by NIMBYs and unscrupulous businesses as a tactic to shut down reasonable projects; at the same time, schemes that shouldn’t be going forward get exemptions.
Still, despite shouts from many, we shouldn’t jettison CEQA altogether. Without it, there’s no telling what damage would be done to our already scarred landscape. We must reform it.
How to reform CEQA? An intimidating question. Here are a few ideas, culled from my conversations with architects, officials, and lawyers, as well as experience and research. First, streamline the process by making standards more objective, eliminating inconsistencies from project to project and removing vague wording from CEQA guidelines like “significant effort” and “substantial evidence” that need to be legally parsed and debated for far too long. For example, updated state law rules that projects must display a “feasible” way to minimize global warming impacts within their Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs). It does not specify further, leaving most new applicants scratching their head about how to respond.
Another major time and energy saver would be to improve communication and adaptability between the many agencies that oversee CEQA reviews (environmental agencies, planning departments, the attorney general’s office, redevelopment agencies, etc.). The lack of flexibility in the CEQA process has caused San Francisco’s recent push to improve its bike system—overwhelmingly supported within the city—to get stuck in the bureaucratic thicket of regulations. Next, make CEQA more responsive to communities by allowing areas to adapt environmental thresholds to their specific needs, making sure that public review notices are better circulated, and making EIRs less cumbersome and more easily accessible. Rules for development in the wilderness shouldn’t be the same as those for central LA. Along similar lines, expand CEQA’s categorical exemption for infill projects, since these are by nature built on land that has already been developed, and are hence not as environmentally sensitive as untouched land.
Finally, make the environment, not legal loopholes, the focus of those filling out an EIR. Make it harder to delay a project in the name of CEQA, particularly if the delays are not related to the environment. Lorcan O’Herlihy and Pacific Development Partners’ SMB28 project in West Hollywood has been held up countless times, thanks to local anti-development groups discovering problems with its EIR, while opposition to the EIR for developer Rick Caruso’s new mall at Santa Anita Racetrack has been funded largely by nearby Santa Anita Mall. If parties have a problem with a project they should protest, but state their reasons clearly, not use the environment as an excuse.
To really get CEQA reform rolling, we need government action, and there have been glimpses of promise. Several proposed bills, like SB 375 (focusing on regional planning and infill development) have focused on CEQA reform. In 2005, the governor established the CEQA Improvement Advisory Committee, made up of government and private sector members, to propose reforms. Still, no bill has done the trick yet, and the improvement group’s many suggestions have produced little actual reform. We all need to put real pressure on Sacramento to follow through with changes, as intimidating as they are.
Everyone wants to protect the environment. But protection doesn’t have to come at the expense of all development. We need to support legislation and internal changes that will improve this process and make it again a worthy protector of our landscape.