The California Environmental Quality Act, commonly referred to as CEQA, is a state law that requires all agencies to identify and mitigate significant environmental impacts caused by their proposed projects. Ronald Reagan enacted CEQA back in 1970, when he was the Governor of California. Undoubtedly, the creation of CEQA goes hand in hand with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was created in 1969. NEPA is a federal law, which has the same goals as CEQA but on a federal level.
The two most important tenants of CEQA are to provide transparency to the government's decisions and to include the public in decision-making processes, all while pursuing the overarching goal of avoiding or reducing significant environmental impacts. “Impact on the environment” is a broad term, and can include impacts on anything, including water, air, land, noise, plants, and animals. An Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is conducted if a proposed project has foreseeable outstanding impacts on the environment. The EIR serves the purpose of informing the public, as well as decision-makers, of key information about the environmental effects of a project.
It also outlines mitigation strategies and alternatives. Projects that are required to go through CEQA can vary tremendously, from large-scale construction of new hospitals or schools to small-scale house renovation projects. On the surface, CEQA seems like a very reasonable and necessary piece of legislation, but in terms of everyday practicality, it quickly disintegrates into a game of political leverage and economic gain. Developers frequently use CEQA as a means to sue each other in order to delay or completely halt development projects under the façade of environmental protection. On another level, some lawyers have made it a business to invoke lawsuits based on CEQA in order to obtain settlement claims and filing fees. These lawyers, nicknamed “bounty hunters” by some, and “CEQA ambulance chasers” by others, have figured out that they only need to win one case in ten to get enough fees to continue filing lawsuits. On the other hand, winning cases does mean that developers are forced to make their projects better for the environment.
Every year in Los Angeles, there are many projects that are stalled or completely discontinued under CEQA lawsuits. La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association is one of the more notorious groups abusing CEQA. They are frequent opponents of development projects in Hollywood and elsewhere. Examples of their actions include stalling a 20-story mixed-use project in Hollywood and challenging the Hollywood Community Plan (which pushed for transit-oriented development). Perhaps the most absurd example, however, is when they forced new residents of a luxury apartment (located on Sunset and Gordon) to move out because the court ruled construction permits invalid.
There is no doubt that CEQA is necessary to protect the environment from the many adverse effects of development projects, but when it’s used to gain political leverage, or made into a lawsuit-winning business by lawyers, then it’s clearly being misused.
How can CEQA adapt to better serve its primary function of environmental protection? How are environmental concerns incorporated into development in your community? Does your community use something similar to California's CEQA process? Share your thoughts and city's stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Victor Tran. Data linked to sources.