Save CEQA, don't gut it

Is California’s oldest environmental law, the one that’s kept our our air and water clean going on 43 years, really the state’s public enemy No. 1?

Rumblings from under the Capitol dome and editorial-board arguments in newspapers statewide would have you believing so. CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, is crushing California’s economy, they insist. It’s even destroying eco-friendly, smart-growth projects!

These critics are calling for changes, including sweeping exemptions to the law, to avoid project-killing lawsuits. The truth, however, is that CEQA works: It prevents environmentally unfriendly and “dumb-growth” development from breaking ground, and it seldom, if ever, stalls good projects.

Gov. Jerry Brown—who also wants to retool CEQA this year, calling the task “the Lord’s work”—should know CEQA isn’t the problem. In 2012, he commissioned his pet department, the Office of Planning and Research, to ask local governments what they thought were the biggest obstacles to infill development.

The top responses included the economy, lack of financing and even the death of redevelopment. CEQA ranked twelfth on local government’s list of concerns.

Yes, business interests have CEQA in their crosshairs again this legislative session. And lawmakers surely feel pressure to mollify chamber-of-commerce types.

But they should not gut CEQA just to appease special interests. CEQA needs fine-tuning. But the law, going on four decades, still works.