CEQA: A Force for People and Nature

Photo by Bill Adams

Committee for Green Foothills is a steadfast supporter of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and has been since this landmark environmental protection and public process law was passed by the state legislature in 1970. This is because it gives the public – and organizations like ours –  the right to weigh in on the environmental effects of development in their communities and has protected us from those harmful effects.

Power to the people 

For almost 50 years, CEQA has been a critical tool in ensuring that the consequences of development on our environment have been accounted for and, if deemed significant, avoided or mitigated. For Committee for Green Foothills, CEQA has provided the means to convey to decision makers and the public the harm development can have on our natural environment. It has played a critical role in helping us to protect tens of thousands of acres of open space in support of our vision of a region where wildlife thrives, everyone has natural beauty to enjoy, and communities live in balance with nature.

For everyday people, CEQA has given them the opportunity to be part of the process of identifying and understanding the effects a project will have on their environment and community. In a world where development interests with money and power have significant influence in the decision making process, all opportunities for public input in shaping how our communities grow is essential in trying to counterbalance this.

CEQA is also a powerful “community enforcement” tool that bestows on the public the right to sue to enforce CEQA protections. This is an important component of this law, especially in disadvantaged communities disproportionately burdened with environmental impacts.

Photo by Ronald Horii

Amendments Not Always A Good Thing

Like any law, CEQA has its imperfections. Many of these have been addressed through CEQA amendments enacted over the years. And while we are not opposed to amendments to the statute that further its fundamental purpose, we take exception to attempts – some of which have been successful – to reduce its effectiveness to protect the environment and allow for public participation.

Calls to “reform” CEQA are too often fueled by misconception, misinformation, and good intentions led astray. CEQA has not caused our housing crisis — in fact, CEQA contains numerous exemptions and streamlining provisions for residential development. CEQA has not stymied our economy or growth — California’s economy has far outperformed the rest of the U.S. in the past few years, while still (thanks to CEQA) protecting our air, water and natural resources. And CEQA has not clogged our courts with frivolous litigation — fewer than 1% of projects subject to CEQA are ever subject to any kind of legal challenge.

It’s Not Just About Litigation 

Since our founding in 1962, Committee for Green Foothills has judiciously chosen to file CEQA lawsuits only 4 times and we were successful in all but one (in which we inadvertently filed too late). The ability for citizens to sue under CEQA, while vital to ensuring accountability on the part of agencies, is not the aspect of CEQA with which we engage every day. For our work, the value of CEQA lies in the transparency of the public process and the fact that it requires agencies to adhere to a particular timeline that allows the public to know what is happening and to contribute their perspective to the process.

Committee for Green Foothills has focused on early and tenacious engagement in the CEQA and project development process to advocate for our environment and achieve meaningful change. We have successfully ensured people’s voices were heard in the initial stages of the public input process so that developers clearly understand a community’s concerns about their project. For example, in 2015, the Panattoni Development Company submitted an application to the City of San Jose for a warehouse and distribution center in Coyote Valley, an open space area critical for wildlife, groundwater, agriculture, and recreation. Because of the requirements of CEQA, the city held a public scoping process which formally introduces the public to the project, and serves as an initial first vetting on what concerns the community might have about the project. We strongly encouraged the public to participate and that resulted in hundreds of public comments being submitted, and a community scoping meeting where over 100 local residents attended to ask questions and voice their concerns with the project. Several months later, the Panattoni Company sold the site to Peninsula Open Space Trust for conservation. It was due to the CEQA process that the company learned at the early stages of the application process how strong the community’s objections to the project were, which encouraged them to sell the site and build their project elsewhere.

A strong CEQA law provides the safety net we need to guard against deficiencies in existing regulatory structures. It offers invaluable environmental protection simply by requiring that agencies take a hard look at the environmental consequences of approving development. It is because of CEQA that we are able to protect our air, water, wildlife and magnificent natural landscapes, prevent further sprawl, and safeguard the health and well being of communities.

As an environmental organization holding public agencies accountable for their land use decisions, we stand in defense of our state’s most powerful environmental law for the sake of people and nature, especially in this age of climate change.

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