Study Finds Rampant CEQA Abuse in Southern California

Study Finds Rampant CEQA Abuse in Southern California

Few state laws generate as much controversy as the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Enacted at the same time as the federal government established the EPA, the law establishes protocol for analyses and public disclosures of environmental impact, but its vagueness and dearth of objective standards has enabled opposition to environmentally-friendly projects as much as it could protect them.

Attorneys at the law firm Holland & Knight have released a study on CEQA litigation in Southern California. “In the Name of the Environment” comes as a supplement to a state-wide study of the same name released in 2015, also by Jennifer Hernandez, David Friedman, and Stephanie DeHerrera. In that study, the first key finding highlighted that 49% of CEQA litigation had targeted taxpayer-supported projects, effectively undermining the dominant narrative of environmentalists wielding the law only to fight big business interests.

As Governor Jerry Brown’s new “by-right” bill to streamline housing production makes its way through the State Legislature, the researchers focused their analysis on how CEQA litigation impacts the supply of housing in municipalities under the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) structure. 48% of California’s population lives within SCAG jurisdiction (in the map above, the area consists of the counties colored in light blue, as well as Imperial County in purple.)

Holland & Knight’s initial findings show that 33% of CEQA lawsuits during 2013-2015 in SCAG cities were aimed to stop approved residential projects. 14% targeted public infrastructure projects.

The study also questions CEQA’s effectiveness at curbing urban sprawl. Rather than stopping “greenfield” development on unincorporated rural land, Hernandez et al. found that 99% of lawsuits against residential project involved “infill” development in existing communities. This translates more lawsuits targeting apartment buildings in downtown Los Angeles, for example, than tract homes replacing farmland in Acton. As far back as 1997, the Sierra Club’s Transportation Committee’s Chair John Holtzclaw recommended encouraging infill development to curb the effects of sprawl.

Urban sprawl, the process in which residential communities spread outward from dense urban cores into far-flung exurbs, has well-documented detriments. Housing the country’s growing population in car-dependent suburbs of primarily detached single-family homes impacts personal health, economic mobility, and increases greenhouse gas emissions.

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