When state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg unveiled his proposal last month to reform California’s primary environmental law, business groups that want a sweeping overhaul of the law were clearly disappointed. By contrast, some environmental groups expressed relief that Steinberg, the most powerful legislator in Sacramento, revealed that he does not intend to gut the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). But while the Sacramento Democrat deserves credit for attempting to find a middle ground and for proposing some sensible reforms to CEQA, Senate Bill 731 does not go far enough to help in the fight against climate change.
As we noted in our March 13 cover story, “How an Environmental Law Is Harming the Environment,” aspects of CEQA are woefully out of date. The state legislature enacted the law in 1970, and so it doesn’t properly address the threats posed by global warming. Moreover, some anti-growth activists in urban areas having been using the law to block projects that could help the environment — smart-growth development that would create more housing in cities along major transit lines, and thus lessen the need for suburban sprawl and greenhouse-gas-belching commutes.
In recent years, the state legislature has approved modest changes to CEQA in an attempt to spur more smart growth and Steinberg’s SB 731 represents additional incremental reform. The bill would prohibit opponents of a housing or mixed-use-housing project near a major transit line from suing over its “aesthetic impacts.” As strange as it sounds, CEQA currently allows people to sue to block projects that will help the environment if they don’t like the way the project looks.
SB 731 also would place restrictions on lawsuits that concern noise, traffic, and parking issues involving housing or mixed-use housing developments near major transit hubs. This part of the proposal would help stop yet another perversion of the state’s environmental law. Currently, CEQA lets anti-growth activists sue to block a smart-growth project if they think it will create “too much traffic” in their neighborhood or won’t provide “enough parking.”
Such lawsuits fly in the face of current research on climate change. Many environmentalists understand that one of the best ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions is to get people to live in cities, close to their jobs. And although that will likely create more traffic in urban areas at times, it will also get more cars off of freeways and reduce the number of long car commutes.
Forward-thinking urban planners also realize that it’s a mistake to force housing developers to build too much parking in cities, because it creates an incentive for people to have cars. Residents are much more likely to live without a car if they have no place to park it. In fact, that’s why research shows that residents of Manhattan have a much smaller carbon footprint than the average American. And yet anti-growth activists in many cities are currently using CEQA to require developers to build more parking, and thus create more incentives for car ownership.
In short, Steinberg’s modest proposals make sense. NIMBYs should not be able to use California’s primary environmental law in ways that harm the environment. At the same time, Steinberg was smart to not go overboard and propose a complete overhaul of CEQA, as some business groups want. CEQA still plays a vital role in helping protect California’s numerous threatened and endangered species, and as we’ve noted before, it provides a needed check on suburban and rural growth projects, highway expansions, fossil-fueled power plants, and oil refineries, while also helping low-income communities in cities fight off pollution-causing industrial development.
Nonetheless, SB 731 is too modest. If California is ever going to get really serious about fighting climate change, then we’re going to need far more dense urban housing projects along major transit corridors than currently envisioned. And time is of the essence. The San Francisco Chronicle reported earlier this week that carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere are continuing to soar as nations around the globe have failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Atmospheric CO2 is now at nearly 400 parts per million, the highest in at least 800,000 years.
In other words, we need to quickly encourage the creation of vibrant, bustling cities in which people live in apartments or condos and walk, bike, or take mass transit to work. And to do that, we should exempt smart growth from all CEQA lawsuits.
Southern California, along with much of the Southwest, could become much more susceptible to drought because of climate change, according to a new study led by NASA, the Los Angeles Times reported. The study essentially predicted that dry regions will become drier and wet regions will become wetter. Drought conditions also could lead to more catastrophic wildfires in Southern California and an increase demand for water from the Sierra. … The Sierra snowpack, meanwhile, was at just 17 percent of normal last week, following a record-breaking dry spell in the beginning of 2013, the Associated Press reported. … A lack of housing in Oakland caused rent prices to skyrocket by 14.8 percent during the first quarter of this year, as the average price of an apartment rental in the city reached $1,947 a month, the Chronicle reported. … And the number of badly designed bolts installed on the new Bay Bridge now stands at more than 2,300, the Chronicle reported, adding that Caltrans continued to use the overly hard metal fasteners even after the agency had banned them because they can become too brittle when exposed to the environment.