How an Environmental Law Is Harming the Environment 

California's signature environmental law needs to be reformed because NIMBYs are using it to block smart growth.


Ali Kashani thought he had a sure thing. In 2008, the longtime Berkeley developer proposed to build one of the greenest housing projects in East Bay history. Kashani has long been an advocate for smart-growth development — dense housing and mixed-use projects built on major transit corridors in urban areas. And the architect that he commissioned for his smart-growth project in Berkeley designed it to meet LEED Platinum standards.

Located on Shattuck Avenue, Kashani's proposed Parker Place development sits on a major AC Transit bus line and is just a short walk from the downtown Berkeley and Ashby BART stations. Residents are to receive free transit passes and have access to car sharing. Plus, there will be 120 bike parking spots, an onsite bicycle repair shop, and electrical plug-in stations for electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

The 155-unit project also includes adaptive reuse of the existing architecture, drought-tolerant landscaping, rainwater reuse, and an onsite retention pond for irrigation. Thirty-one of the units will be affordable housing, and there will be a medical clinic for the homeless onsite.

In other words, the Parker Place project is a liberal environmentalist's dream. It has won the endorsement of the Greenbelt Alliance, an environmental group that advocates for smart growth, and TransForm, a progressive organization that backs public transit. Both groups recognize that Parker Place will help Berkeley meet its climate-change goals, because it will provide much-needed urban housing near jobs and mass transit, thereby helping lessen the need for suburban sprawl and greenhouse-gas-belching commutes.

But nothing's ever a sure thing in Berkeley, a city that is home to some of the most vocal and stubborn anti-growth activists in the state. In November 2010, after the Berkeley City Council approved Parker Place, a small group of these activists sued to block the project, using the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to do it. And now, more than four years after Kashani unveiled his proposal, it's still tied up in litigation. "They really don't like infill projects," Kashani said, referring to how anti-growth activists view urban development. "And they're holding up good projects that could be on the market."

The suit against Parker Place is all too common. The state legislature adopted CEQA (pronounced see-kwa) more than forty years ago as part of a comprehensive effort to protect the environment. But anti-growth activists are now using the landmark environmental law to stymie projects that would help fight climate change.

In the past few years, a consortium of business and some labor groups in California has pushed for sweeping reforms of the law. And this year, they hope to convince legislators in Sacramento to overhaul it. They already have a powerful ally in Democratic Governor Jerry Brown. As mayor of Oakland, Brown witnessed first-hand the use of CEQA to block smart growth, and has called reforming the law "the Lord's work."

Although many environmental groups recognize that CEQA is sometimes misused, they staunchly oppose the most recent calls for reform out of fear that the law will be gutted. They correctly note that CEQA still plays a vital role in protecting California's numerous endangered and threatened species, and provides an important check on suburban and rural growth projects, highway expansions, and proposals for new refineries and fossil-fuel power plants. Over the years, CEQA also has helped protect low-income communities from toxic incinerators and landfills.

From that perspective, the law does not need to be overhauled. But there is ample evidence that it does need reforming, particularly when it comes to smart growth and transit-oriented development. "It has gotten in the way of projects that arguably should be considered environmentally sustainable," noted Jeremy Madsen, executive director of Greenbelt Alliance. "Climate change has changed the whole game."

Indeed, the numerous threats posed by climate change prove definitively that aspects of California's signature environmental law are woefully out of date.

By the late 1960s, there was widespread, bipartisan agreement in Sacramento that state government needed to do more to protect the environment from polluters. There also was a recognition that California residents needed a powerful tool to fight against unwanted development. And so in 1970, then-Governor Ronald Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act. Ever since, the comprehensive law has required public agencies throughout the state to examine dozens of environmental issues related to virtually every development proposal in California.

But a lot has changed since 1970. Back then, no one was talking about global warming. And no one realized that the biggest threat to the environment in the 21st century would be greenhouse-gas emissions, and that a major contributor to this problem would be commuters who live in suburban and rural regions of the state and drive long hours to work in urban areas.

According to a 2009 report from the US Environmental Protection Agency, the nation's transportation sector produces 28 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions in the country, and that figure rises to as much as 40 percent in some states, including California. According to a 2010 UC Irvine study, rural and suburban residents in California consume up to nearly three times as many gallons of fossil fuel each year as city dwellers.

The problem is especially acute in the Bay Area. The US Census recently reported that the region leads the nation in so-called "mega-commuters" — people who drive more than fifty miles and ninety minutes both to and from work each day. The Bay Area also ranks eighth nationwide in carbon emissions per capita, according to a 2008 report from the Brookings Institution.

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