California Environmental Protection Could be Watered Down Under Sneaky Law Awaiting Jerry Brown's Signature, Activists Say

Density in downtown L.A.
Density in downtown L.A.
Chris McCorkle

Critics of over-development in L.A. are up in arms about a California law, which just needs the governor's signature to be finalized, that they argue would weaken the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and allow cities to use years- and decades-old environmental impact reports for zoning changes.

LA Neighbors United and its founder, Cary Brazeman, took out full-page ad (PDF) in the Los Angeles Times this week decrying SB 226, which is on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk awaiting his signature.

LA Neighbors says the bill was "quietly passed" by the state legislature and that it would:

-Allow cities and towns to base zoning changes (e.g. pump up the heights and density of buildings) on old environmental impact reports -- ignoring changes in contemporary traffic, for example.

-Encourage cities ignore the impacts of growth when considering development.

-Implore cities to ignore the traffic implications of projects.

The bill would apply to municipalities with more than 100,000 residents.

Sierra Club California director Kathryn Phillips told the Weekly that the bill was part of a handful of laws introduced in the last weeks and days of the legislative session that would "would roll back CEQA protections."

"I don't think it was been a very thoughtful approach to CEQA reform," she said.

The Sierra Club opposed 226. Phillips argues that some in the legislature, even previously eco-friendly leaders, have been blaming environmental regulation for the loss of construction and other development jobs that should really be blamed on Wall Street and the subprime mortgage loan implosion.

The upshot, she argues, is that these CEQA-delfating laws "won't do much" to create jobs:

I'm disappointed to hear our legislative friends, people normally in line with the environment, making arguments that suggest that CEQA is the reason we have a bad economy or don't have jobs. The reason we don't have construction jobs is because the lack of regulation on the mortgage industry and Wall Street, and we're all suffering because of that. There are things that can be done to stimulate the economy that don't require tearing apart environmental protections.

The Nature Conservancy supported the bill.

Policy director Jay Ziegler told us that, yes, jobs are important, but "smart growth" is too.

We all have a common interest in fostering economic growth and a turnaround that provides a sustainable development path for all of us. At some point we need to decide whether we're going to provide some modest incentive for smarter growth and reducing our carbon footprint. We think this is a step toward a smart-growth strategy.

Brazeman isn't buying 226 as smart growth. He tells us:

If we define down environmental quality and planning standards to a point where California is no longer California, why would anyone want to live or do business in the state anyway?

He says cities could rely on environmental impact reports that are as much as 30-years-old to change their zoning laws and redefine planning goals:

Cities and counties under this bill, if it becomes law, won't have to analyze the impacts of growth before they approve growth plans. We're concerned that it would be the beginning of the end of California's landmark environmental quality law.

[@dennisjromero/djromero@laweekly.com]

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