Only Unity Can Challenge Environmentalism Inc.

The California Environmental Quality Act was passed by the state legislature in 1971. At that time, it was the first legislation of its kind in the nation, if not the world. Its original intent was to “inform government decisionmakers and the public about the potential environmental effects of proposed activities and to prevent significant, avoidable environmental damage.”

Over the past half-century, however, CEQA has acquired layers of legislative updates and precedent setting court rulings, warping it into a beast that denies clarity to developers and derails projects. When projects do make it through the CEQA gauntlet, the price of passage adds punitive costs in time and money. Knowing this will happen deters countless investors and developers from even trying to complete a project in the state.

On May 8 the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency, submitted to the governor its recommendations for how CEQA might be revised. Because the Little Hoover Commission is taken seriously by state policymakers, the recommendations are more incremental than might be advisable if policymakers took seriously their obligation to make California’s economy work for everyone, but in most respects what they’re recommending are steps in the right direction.

Good ideas from the commission included a provision to limit delaying tactics, since delaying a project often is enough to kill a project, as well as stricter standards for who has so-called standing to file a CEQA lawsuit. Anyone who has gone through a CEQA process appreciates the value of these two reforms. The commission also recommended the legislature add clarity to CEQA language to take some of the burden of interpretation away from the courts and litigants, and they recommended the state “establish clear parameters for significance thresholds and for analysis and mitigation of impacts.” Easier said than done, fraught with potential to just make matters worse, but we have to try. So far, so good.

Where the commission made a grave error was in carving out an exemption for “infill housing.” If CEQA must exist, there shouldn’t be any exemptions. Every special interest needs to jump through the same hoops. That might actually stimulate unity across California’s productive economic sectors as to what CEQA should and shouldn’t do. As it was, in the four lengthy public hearings held last spring, the only industry that showed up in force were the home builders. For the most part, these hearings were dominated by the usual suspects, professional and semi-professional activists representing environmentalist and social justice causes.

One may also wonder why “infill,” whereby every spare scrap of empty land “within existing development patterns” has to be turned into high density housing, is the optimal use of that land or a desirable housing strategy. The imposition of growth boundaries around California’s cities is perhaps the single biggest cause of a housing shortage and high prices, and its justification contradicts obvious facts. California is the most urbanized state in America, with only 5.0 percent of its land housing 94.2 percent of its population.

To share a fact that can’t be repeated often enough, you could move 10 million people into homes on quarter-acre lots, four per household, with an equal amount of land allocated for roads, parks, schools, and retail, commercial and industrial zoning, and you would only increase California’s urban footprint from 7,779 square miles to 9,702 square miles. That is, in this vast state which encompasses 155,779 square miles, you could move 10 million people into so-called sprawling suburbs and you would only increase the urban footprint of the state from 5.0 percent to 6.2 percent. The claim that we need to protect open space from suburban sprawl, heard incessantly from environmentalists, is completely unfounded.

But this is the restrictive mentality that dominates Sacramento’s politicians and the state bureaucracy. Adherence requires imposing scarcity on everything that might make California a more affordable, productive and welcoming state. To enforce scarcity, CEQA is just one of the bigger tools among many. Whether it’s the California Air Resources Board, CalGEM, Cal EPA, the Dept. of Water Resources, the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, the Coastal Commission, or the Public Utilities Commission, their intent is unambiguous and implacable. Scarcity in all things: energy, water, transportation, housing.

CEQA reform is past-due. But incremental changes that will just accelerate Sacramento’s plan to move millions of people into low-rise apartments built on demolished single family homes is not a pleasant future, irrespective of the pretty renderings presented at planning department meetings by subsidy-guzzling developers armed with calculations of how much carbon they’ll save by cramming people into smaller and smaller spaces.

One proposal to overhaul CEQA was filed by Stephen Hilton last year and cleared for signature gathering. Among other things, it would have restricted CEQA lawsuits to county district attorneys and capped impact fees. That could have been settled law by January 2024 if voters had a chance to vote on it in November, but the deadline for signature gathering just expired on 5/13. Prospective donors knew what support for this initiative would have meant: nuclear war against Environmentalism, Inc.

But these non-incremental proposals are what is needed to save California for working families. Why do we have CEQA at all, when there are so many other state and federal laws designed to protect the environment? More generally, what is it going to take to mount a serious challenge to the environmental movement in California that has captured our institutions to impose a misanthropic and extreme version of environmentalism on the population?

What is missing today is unity between industrial interests and wealthy individuals who recognize what is happening in California and are prepared to fight, dollar for dollar, for as many decades as it takes, against a political machine that has forgotten that people come first. To do that, they have to stop playing defense, and come together to identify common threats and combine resources to fight for solutions that work for everyone.

This article originally appeared in the California Globe.

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