CEQA Needs to Die

The proposed Tejon Ranch development would deliver new housing for an estimated 57,000 Californians. Located along Interstate 5 about 60 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, the development plan has something for everyone. A significant percentage of units are designated for low income residents. Over 90 percent of the vast private parcel will be permanently set aside as open space. The homes will be “energy neutral,” with hundreds of EV charging stations. Significant funds are pledged for wildlife habitat and preservation of cultural artifacts. But nothing will ever be enough.

For over 20 years, developers have attempted to build these now desperately needed homes, reaching agreements repeatedly with environmentalist coalitions. But thanks to yet another lawsuit, in March 2023 a Los Angeles judge has ruled the entitlements process will have to start over. In a recent disclosure to investors, Tejon Ranch Company warned that it may take another 25 years before any homes are built.

The reason for these delays, which are sufficient to deter most homebuilders from even operating any longer in California, is the California Environmental Quality Act, otherwise known as CEQA.

Ronald Reagan signed CEQA into law in 1970 to ensure that state projects anticipated and mitigated “significant environmental impacts.” But this is California, so by 1972 state judges had determined that “state projects” meant any construction project that required government approval – and that means all construction in the state of California.

Since then, CEQA has morphed into a beast that would be unrecognizable to its original proponents. Swollen beyond comprehension by decades of “clarifying” legislation, amendments, court precedents, and agency interpretations, CEQA has become the bottleneck that chokes and kills the good more than the bad, making California the worst place on earth for anyone to ever attempt to build anything.

Since its creation in 1962,. But when they decided to tackle the monster called the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), they may have taken on more than they can handle.

Over the past four months, California’s Little Hoover Commission has held hearings on CEQA. Later this summer the commission intends to make recommendations to the state legislature. In over 20 hours of hearings, and with rare exceptions, what passed through the chambers was a cavalcade of special interests, almost all of them adroitly leveraging the CEQA body of law to pay themselves and their organizations.

CEQA is the reason that land, housing, water, electricity, oil and gas, lumber, aggregate, and even food costs so much in California. It’s the reason the state’s freeways are pitted, potholed, congested hellscapes, while off in the remote bowels of the San Joaquin Valley, a Stonehenge like monument to corruption rises ever so slowly, pylons to elevate the “bullet train,” consuming stupefying quantities of cement and steel, costing countless billions of dollars.

One of the rare, genuine victims to testify was Dan Dunmoyer, representing the California Building Industry Association. Because his industry hasn’t navigated a profitable workaround that transmutes litigious, bureaucratic CEQA-generated gridlock into bountiful grift, Dunmoyer can tell you the true cost of CEQA.

He told the Little Hoover Commission that the average CEQA-required environmental impact report for a 200-home subdivision in the 1970s ran two pages. Now it’s over 1,000 pages for the same scope of work and, best case, will cost at least $1 million to prepare. More likely, after the inevitable litigation and bureaucratic micromanagement, the entire CEQA process will cost many times that, and consume years if not decades.

An honest attorney, Jennifer Hernandez, told the commission that her advocacy on behalf of hapless builders, whose crime is trying to build homes so people can live with a roof over their head, has been remunerative. Most of the good guys aren’t so candid, as anyone will attest who has ever shared a conference room with a $1,600 per hour consultant who regretfully explains just how hard the fight is going to be, thanks to horrible CEQA.

But CEQA, like the natural world it has evolved to ostensibly protect, nourishes a robust ecosystem, with each species carving out a lucrative niche in a fantastic jungle of specialized and indispensable experts, academics, scientists, administrators, bureaucrats, judges, court personnel, professional activists, legislative staff, agency staff, accountants, carbon accountants, CPAs, attorneys, litigators, and tens of thousands of tradesmen who don’t care if they’re adding a desperately needed lane to Interstate 405, or reconstructing Stonehenge. For them, work is work. CEQA is a multi-billion-dollar industry, sucking the life out of California’s economy.

A common refrain before the commission was that CEQA doesn’t go far enough. One member of the public, useful to the professionals insofar as her unremunerated passion made their more calculated comments reasonable by comparison, claimed that without CEQA the genocidal assault against California’s disadvantaged would continue. Another volunteer, who wanted the commission to know that her bedtime reading was environmental impact reports, was embarrassingly explicit. CEQA is a weapon to stop projects, and that’s why we need it.

But the sharks and bloodsuckers who feed on CEQA have no shame. A social justice – or was it environmental justice – advocate, an attorney representing yet another “nonprofit,” not only demanded CEQA proceedings be transcribed and posted online, but transcribed into several languages besides English. Grow the industry. Feed the beast.

One disturbing takeaway from these hearings was its staid normalcy. From the tone of the remarks, mostly coming from attorneys representing environmental organizations or labor organizations, you wouldn’t get the impression that CEQA is tearing the life out of California’s economy. And when the discussion turned to serious recommendations for reform, most called for more exemptions instead of reforming the law for everyone. Make exemptions for low income housing permanent! Enact permanent exemptions for renewable energy projects! Favor us, we’re the good guys.

But can CEQA be fixed? Can the process be streamlined, so, for example, last minute lawsuits are no longer allowed, or agencies and courts can no longer slow walk applications and cases, killing projects merely due to delaying tactics?

There are plenty of incremental ways to make CEQA less of a beast, but most of them involve picking winners or introducing new complexity that will spawn as many challenges as it will alleviate. The best thing the Little Hoover Commission can do is recommend CEQA be scrapped in its entirety. The pros need not despair. California, and the federal government, have plenty of other laws and regulations guaranteed to ensure projects designed to lower the cost-of-living, which is genuine social justice, will never see the light of day. Let CEQA die.

An edited version of this appeared in the Orange County Register.

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