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There's a Last Minute Rush to Completely Overhaul California's Big Environmental-Development Law

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The state legislative season is nearly over (it ends August 31), but a "business-labor-government coalition" is trying to squeeze in one last thing: a major overhaul of the California Environmental Quality Act, which currently covers pretty much anything major that might be built in the state (parks, buildings, rail lines, you name it). The Sacramento Bee reports now that the CEQA Working Group has come up with a "four-point proposal, aimed at reducing frivolous litigation and duplication of government oversight of projects," which they've added to SB 317, a bill that formerly dealt with fisheries management on the Kings River (that stuff has been stripped out--is this ironic?). Here's what it'd do: "Rather than change CEQA itself, it would enact a new law, the Sustainable Environmental Protection Act, that changes how it's to be enforced, including integrating its provisions with other planning and protection laws, and placing restrictions on CEQA lawsuits that don't specifically address environmental matters." The San Francisco Chronicle adds that "Under the proposal, projects that meet the requirements of an existing land-use plan - which has met CEQA mandates - would be exempt from going through the law's rigorous environmental review process."

CEQA was passed in 1970 and requires that significant projects include an environmental impact report detailing how the project will affect things like traffic, wildlife, and aesthetics; developers are required to mitigate certain impacts. It also allows anyone to sue a project based on those EIRs--the idea is to give some veto power to the little guy, neighbors or others who might be directly affected. In practice, pretty much everyone sues based on CEQA, all the time--rival developers and undiscriminating NIMBYs are predictably some of the worst offenders. The lawsuits can hold up projects for years or kill them altogether (Hollywood has been especially plagued by this kind of thing, although the neighborhood has come out the other side of many lawsuits and seen the beginnings of a building boom lately). In the last few years, the state legislature has started giving CEQA exemptions (basically forcing any legal challenges to move quickly)--first to LA's two NFL stadium plans, and then to any big project that meets certain environmentally-friendly requirements.

According to the SacBee, Republicans "have been demanding" CEQA reform for years; Democrats are split on the issue. Governor Brown said yesterday that he believes CEQA reform is "the Lord's work," although he hasn't specifically endorsed the plan on the table.
· CEQA overhaul amended into Senate bill [SacBee]
· California environmental law faces changes [SF Chronicle]