Dueling websites tell different stories about CEQA

150 150 Justin Ewers

The front pages of the websites for CEQA Works and the CEQA Working Group.

There may be two sides to every story, but rarely do they sound more different than when the subject is the California Environmental Quality Act. With would-be reformers of the state’s premier environmental law locking horns in Sacramento with environmentalists who want to keep the law as it is, both sides have recently rolled out new websites that tell their side of the story. 

The two sites promise to do the same thing—”protect” California’s environment and economy. But a closer look reveals they couldn’t disagree more on how to do it.

Environmental groups were quick to respond to state Sen. Michael Rubio’s efforts last summer to reform CEQA, and they were the first to man the online barricades this year with their site, ceqaworks.org. The page speaks for a “broad coalition” of environmental and labor groups who tout CEQA’s decades of successes helping California communities to preserve their environment. The group’s stated goal: “Keep California’s environmental laws strong.”

Last week, a competing website, ceqaworkinggroup.com was released by another “broad coalition”—this time of business groups and local governments that have spent the last year working together (thus, “working group”) to develop reforms to the law. As their site puts it: “It’s time to modernize CEQA to preserve the intent of the law—environmental protection and public participation—while limiting abuses of CEQA that have stopped responsible community improvements that benefit the economy and environment.”

We take a look at who’s behind the new websites—and what their take on CEQA says about the likelihood of any major reform to the law this year:

Who’s behind the sites?

  • CEQA Works:  Managed by the Planning & Conservation League Foundation, a Sacramento-based nonprofit environmental group, the site represents the views of a “broad coalition of civic, conservation, environmental justice, preservation, labor, and public health groups, native tribes, business leaders, and legal experts.” The site includes a list of more than 50 supporters, from heavyweights like NRDC and the Sierra Club to the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council and the League of Women Voters.
  • CEQA Working Group: The Working Group says it consists of a “broad coalition of groups representing schools, hospitals, public transit, affordable housing, renewable energy, local governments and many others.” The site includes a business- and building industry-heavy list of more than 60 organizations, from the California Chamber of Commerce to the California Association of Realtors. Not mentioned are the group’s two co-chairs: Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

What’s their take on CEQA?

  • CEQA Works: The site’s ‘About CEQA’ section details what it calls California’s ‘environmental bill of rights:’ “CEQA is designed to ensure that people in every California community can understand how land use decisions will impact their communities and health, and can hold public agencies accountable to local and state environmental and land use laws.”
  • CEQA Working Group: In a section called ‘Get the Facts,’ the Working Group says “thoughtful reforms to CEQA [are] long overdue:” “When the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) was enacted 40 years ago, the wide array of local, state and federal environmental and land use regulations that are now on the books didn’t exist. CEQA was essentially it.” The site points out that the state and federal government have since adopted more than 120 laws to protect the environment—but CEQA can still be used to challenge projects that meet all of these other environmental standards. “CEQA’s power to derail progress means it is now an obstacle to the change we have decided is critical for the environment and public health:  transit-oriented, higher-density development patterns; renewable power; a new manufacturing base for Greentech; and major new infrastructure projects like high speed rail and Bay Delta and water supply protections.”

What do they want to do about it?

  • CEQA Works: The site mostly defends the strengths of CEQA, but it does leave room for compromise, saying it is “committed to positive updates” of the law that maintain its core principles: Transparency, public participation, and community enforcement, among others. “Business interests—including developers—are currently advocating for an overhaul of CEQA that would significantly weaken CEQA’s protections and severely limit communities’ right to learn about and comment on land use decisions,” the site says. “While CEQA Works acknowledges there is room to improve our state’s environmental laws, the proposals being discussed in the legislature go too far—adding loopholes to exempt development projects and major polluting industries from real environmental review.”
  • CEQA Working Group: The site is clear about what it views as the problem with the law, and it details four major reforms. These include:

    • Integrating environmental and planning laws (so CEQA plays better with more recently-adopted environmental laws) 
    • Eliminating CEQA duplication (to prevent agencies from having to go through environmental review for specific projects even when plans have already done so)
    • Focusing CEQA litigation on compliance with environmental and planning laws (instead of allowing lawsuits to challenge plans that already comply with existing environmental standards)
    • Enhancing public disclosure and accountability (so “anonymous” groups can’t file CEQA suits without disclosing who they are) 

Have questions? The site has detailed responses to a list of FAQs.

How they talk about CEQA?

  • CEQA Works: CEQA gets a round of applause on the site’s rotating set of ‘CEQA Successes,’ which tell the story of how the law has helped ensure community involvement in everything from city master plans to state decisions about protecting wildlife. The site also has an up-to-date press room featuring news stories that tell the environmental side of the CEQA story, including a recent op-ed from Sen. Noreen Evans and Asm. Das Williams outlining a set of small “updates” to the law environmentalists “could easily support.”
  • CEQA Working Group: The site has rolled out a set of ‘CEQA misuse case studies‘ that show how the law has been used to stymie affordable housing developments in San Francisco, prevent the relocation of a seismically unsafe school, and cause, well, “Carmageddon” in Los Angeles. The latest CEQA news—that is, the news the Working Group has chosen to highlight—streams down one side of every page, including a recent op-ed from three former governors calling for CEQA reform.

Where they overstate things:

  • CEQA Works: As they have been publicly for the last month, the two groups largely talk past each other on the subject of what to do about CEQA. CEQA Works highlights the law’s successes and says it “could be open to positive updates,” but the proposals it features—changes to the law’s requirements on electronic records, for example—wouldn’t do much to address the instances of CEQA being abused.
  • CEQA Working Group: Because there is so much detail on the site about its proposed changes to CEQA, the Working Group leaves itself vulnerable to more nit-picking. One example is the site’s overstatement of just how much the deck is stacked against developers—who it says now have only a “50-50” chance of winning in court in CEQA cases, “even when a full EIR has been undertaken.” This isn’t quite what the study the Working Group refers to has concluded: Instead, it shows developers only lose half the time in published cases reviewed by courts at the appellate and state supreme court level. This leaves out the much larger number of cases being considered by trial courts—and it ignores the fact that the state’s highest courts only take on the most contentious cases. CEQA litigation abuse may be real, but development in California isn’t necessarily the “coin toss” the site makes it out to be.

Justin Ewers

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