Several years ago the Planning and Conservation League published a report entitled “Everyday Heroes Protect the Air We Breath, the Water We Drink and the Natural Areas We Prize”, in celebration of 35 years of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The report takes a look at some of the policy changes that have occurred in our communities as a result of this venerable environmental law. For over more than 35 years now, CEQA has given concerned residents a way of making their voice heard in the planning process. Many people throughout the state stepped up to the plate and worked hard to make their community a better place to live and raise their kids using CEQA.
In a last minute deal behind closed doors State legislators once again tried to limit citizen involvement in the planning process by forcing drastic changes to CEQA without any debate or public input. The changes were proposed through a “gut and amend” process where an existing bill, often totally unrelated, is completely gutted and a new bill is inserted using the same bill number. This highly questionable practice enables special interests to push desired changes through at the last minute without scrutiny of any kind.
The changes would have restricted the public’s ability to enforce this important environmental law and protect their commentates.
Its little wonder that special interests would try to such a tactic since past polling has always indicated strong support for this popular law.
Perhaps its time to take another look at what CEQA does and how it has benefited the public and the communities in our area along the Santa Clara River.
The California Environmental Quality Act requires review of projects that will affect the environment. If the project is small and will have few impacts (i.e., the renovation of an existing building), the review is minimal.
If it is a large project next to the river that will generate a lot of traffic, air quality problems, etc. such as Newhall Ranch, Vista Canyon and the many other large projects proposed in the Santa Clarita area, CEQA requires an environmental impact report (EIR). This document is available to the public (in the local library and the City planning department) for review so that the public and the decision-makers are aware of the negative aspects.
Sometimes problems may be missed in the EIR due to unfamiliarity with the neighborhood. Also, because developers pay for their own environmental impact reports, the temptation not to disclose certain impacts may become too great. Big problems are not disclosed.
For instance, Newhall Land did not disclose the existence of the endangered Spineflower on the Newhall Ranch project and did not find the spadefoot toad on the Riverpark project until others brought it to their attention. Recently, residents have brought up issues regarding water supply and pollutants that they felt were not properly disclosed in the EIRs.
Disclosure is important because CEQA then requires that planning agencies and developers “mitigate” these impacts to the greatest extent possible. Projects that require grading will have to make sure that their contractors water down the site to reduce dust. Native plants may be required in landscaping plans to reduce water usage; new lanes or bridge widening may be required to address traffic issues. In the case of the spineflower, acreage was set aside as a reserve for this rare plant. Without proper disclosure of the impacts, such mitigation wouldn’t be required.
Who knows their neighborhoods better than the residents do? Neighbors or community groups writing comments and objections to projects have often forced the changes needed to keep their communities safe and healthy places to live.
This is not always accomplished by merely telling our elected officials that something is wrong. Often those officials were elected with campaign contributions from developers and are hesitant to stop their benefactors’ projects. The only recourse left for the community is public interest litigation to force the agency to recognize the problem.
Developers complain that public interest litigation is increasing the cost of housing and regulations to shorten the development review process should be instituted. In fact, a very small percentage of CEQA approvals are litigated because safeguards against frivolous litigation already exist. Only the most egregious violations of CEQA are brought to the Courts for the simple reason that community groups don’t have a lot of money and it is expensive to hire lawyers. A proposal must be REALLY BAD before neighborhood folks can be talked into spending their Sunday afternoons on garage sales or walking neighborhoods to try to raise the money to hire an attorney.
In many cases, the issues brought under CEQA exposed state wide problems and brought sweeping changes that benefited communities throughout the state. The individuals and neighborhood groups not only saved their communities, they helped many others as well.
So we were relieved to hear that this years last minute “gut and amend” back room deal to restrict CEQA was dropped as a result of many phone calls and protests to legislaturors by all of you. While such changes may be proposed again next year, at least they will be aired in the light of day with plenty of time for debate and public input.
In the meantime SCOPE and other community groups can continue to use CEQA to protect our neighborhoods and our watersheds.