Environmentality

California developers sidestep environmental laws, hasten project approval with ballot initiatives

Development Environment West
Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles, California (Courtesy wwarby / Flickr)
Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles, California (Courtesy wwarby / Flickr)

California’s ballot initiative system allows residents to propose laws as well as approve them by popular vote. In the past, this has resulted in drastically reducing property taxes and the approval of the country’s first law for medical marijuana. Recently, controversy has arisen due to the use of the system by developers to disregard state environmental laws and consequently hasten the pace of major developments, reports The New York Times.

Using this popular vote system, plans were approved for several major development projects in Moreno Valley including “a stadium in Carson, a shopping center north of San Diego and a vast warehouse complex,” the article lists.

Box Springs Mountain Park in Moreno Valley, California (Courtesy grimneko / Flickr)

This process of approval circumvents the California Environmental Quality Act whose rules would otherwise present obstacles for the developers. Another concern, addressed by The Times article, is that residents do not even have the opportunity to vote on the designs in question. In order for a project to be considered for special election or approval, a petition with the signatures of 15 percent of eligible voters is required. Local officials can then proceed to approve the project without a ballot to avoid the financial burden a special election would present.

While the California Environmental Quality Act requires that developers “to identify and mitigate the environmental effects of their projects,” the law is not enforced by any government agency, only by lawsuits. Claims to sue “can range from destroying animal habitats to blocking a view,” The Times states. As a result, projects can be delayed and their costs exacerbated.



Out of nine plans for new Walmart stores in California, eight were approved without a ballot. A California Supreme Court decision in 2014 addressed Walmart’s actions determining that elected officials can indeed approve projects without a ballot and therefore avoiding “environmental review.”

Other developers have followed suit and projects across the state have attracted scrutiny and opposition for this reason, including a shopping center in Carlsbad and a proposed World Logistics Center in Moreno Valley.

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