Friday, January 14, 2011

#14 / CEQA Reform

Pictured is the CEQA Process Flow Chart, as found on a website maintained by the California Resources Agency. It looks like a "complicated" process, doesn't it? Anything this complicated must be ripe for "reform." We need to "speed up" government, so we can get to work on the real challenge facing us, which is growing the California economy. Right?

The California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, has at least two important features that may not be generally understood:

  1. CEQA establishes an effective process for public participation, requiring governmental agencies to solicit and respond to public comments on virtually every significant governmental decision. Absent CEQA, there is no general requirement that governmental agencies ask for public comments on important decisions, and that such agencies respond to them in a serious and substantive way. The CEQA process is far and away more substantive than a requirement for a "public hearing," which generally just means that members of the public will be allowed some brief amount of time, like two minutes, to comment on something prior to agency action (and without any requirement that the agency respond substantively to the issues raised by the public). "Environmental" issues aside, CEQA is California's strongest "good government" law.
  2. CEQA has what is called a "substantive mandate." This is a requirement in CEQA that the governmental agency proposing a project eliminate, to the greatest degree feasible, any adverse environmental impacts identified in the environmental review process. Without this mandate to "do it right," governmental bodies would often neglect to take actions that could make their decisions "better" from an environmental point of view, actions that are absolutely "feasible," but which would otherwise be disregarded, absent the legal requirements of CEQA. Again, this is, more than anything, a "good government" requirement.
Calls for CEQA "reform" are always being made by both developers and governmental agencies (particularly local government agencies). We can expect more "CEQA reform" proposals, now that there is a new Administration in Sacramento. While speeding up the process might be a worthwhile goal, more often than not, CEQA "reform" is the shibboleth used to describe efforts to eliminate one or both of the features just identified.

When you hear CEQA "reform," watch out!

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