Blackmail Goes Green
JAN. 10, 2012
By KATY GRIMES
Anyone who tries to change the sacred texts of the California Environmental Equality Act will find out just how sacred they are and lose. Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, found that out Monday.
CEQA provides a process for evaluating the environmental effects of building, construction or development projects by private businesses or public agencies.
But according to the Public Policy Institute of California, one lawsuit is filed for every 354 projects reviewed under CEQA. Grove is pushing for the judicial review by the California Attorney General of these lawsuits in order to assure that CEQA’s requirements are followed appropriately, and that private sector, non-union businesses are not a constant target.
CEQA was enacted in 1970, and signed into law by then Gov. Ronald Reagan. It requires elected officials to analyze and consider environmental impacts of proposed development and construction projects, and limit those impacts before approval could be given.
But the reports can take months to prepare, and often are thousands of pages long. Many say that CEQA was created to protect the environment, but has instead become an instrument to stop all development.
CEQA As a Tool
Grove presented AB 598 to the Natural Resources Committee Monday. “Many people exploit CEQA,” Grove explained, “and with labor union intents behind many.”
Grove’s bill reads, “This bill would prohibit any person, other than the Attorney General, from commencing or maintaining an action or lawsuit alleging that an environmental impact report, negative declaration, or mitigated negative declaration does not comply with CEQA.”
Grove told the committee that a form of “greenmail” has been taking place in California using CEQA’s environmental laws, and is stifling and stopping business, renovation projects and new construction attempts.
According to Grove, after a building or development project has received approval from a local government, labor unions file a lawsuit against the business, questioning the environmental impact the building or construction project will have, and demanding a full environmental impact report. But once the builder or contractor waffles, and eventually agrees to sign a Project Labor Agreement and hire union workers, the lawsuit is dropped and all concerns about environmental issues are dropped.
Another wrinkle has come about recently: CEQA exemptions. Kevin Dayton, government affairs director for the Associated Builders and Contractors, said that very large projects are receiving exemptions if the principals are well-connected.
The proposed downtown Los Angeles football stadium and convention center project received an exemption when SB 292 was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. SB 292 greatly modified the usual CEQA requirements in order to get the stadium project moving.
The lawsuits are not brought about because of concerns about the environment. Many are brought by competitors who lost a bid, and by labor unions against non-union companies. “It’s a slap in the face to anyone wanting to help California’s environment,” Grove said. She said that California needed to find a way to provide business protections against unwarranted attacks under the guise of CEQA as quickly as possible, so construction projects can begin again.
Opposition to AB 598
In opposition to AB 598, the Attorney General’s office states it “is not, nor could it feasibly be, budgeted and staffed to monitor every project with potential environmental impacts undertaken throughout California…. AB 598 would effectively eliminate, rather than reform, CEQA as substantive state policy.”
“All of us can share concern when law is abused — there are safeguards in the system to deal with that,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. “There is a right way to do this. This bill is a whole different thing. We are really talking about gutting CEQA.… it’s a very unfortunate bill, but fortunately it’s about to take a long nap.”
Huffman even said that he doubted that Grove would be willing to approve an increased budget for the Attorney General, which would be needed to review all of the additional CEQA lawsuits.
“Is that the only reason you oppose the bill — that the AG’s office doesn’t have the staff?” Assemblyman Steve Knight, R-Antelope Valley, asked the Deputy Attorney General. “Is there nothing else to preclude you from doing this?”
The representative from the Attorney General’s office said that there were “other complications,” and it would create conflict with other state agencies if the Attorney General was the sole enforcer of CEQA.
“I wonder if the AG’s office will weigh in if we pass a bill that will never have a way of policing by the Attorney General,” Knight suggested.
“I am not approved to answer that,” replied the Deputy Attorney General.
Jobs versus Union Jobs
Grove shared several stories about businesses and developers effectively shut down, even after adhering to the rules and laws for development or renovation projects.
Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, R-Fresno, told committee members about a solar panel project at the Fresno Airport in her district that was halted by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The IBEW claimed that a proper environmental impact report was not done. However, Fresno City Council members questioned whether the union’s real concern was the environment, or union jobs.
California is one of only three states that require private projects to comply with its own environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act. While CEQA is credited with helping preserve waterways for fish, mountainous regions, desert and coastline, CEQA has also been described as allowing a single bird watcher to protect an endangered animal.
Grove said that her sole objection is that CEQA is being used by labor unions to either kill the competition, or force a non-union business into labor agreements; and that the way CEQA laws are being abused, entire regions are stuck in the recession without the ability to move forward with building projects.
Grove met with expected opposition from the Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League, the Consumer Attorneys of California and California League of Conservation Voters.
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