It looks at times as if Gov. Gavin Newsom is trying to imitate Jerry Brown as he tries to gut California’s main environmental protection law, at least for large infrastructure projects like reservoirs, road and bridges.
Brown certainly did reduce the clout of the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA, usually pronounced “see-qua”) during his fourth and final term as governor, mainly clearing the way for large spectator sports facilities like the Golden State Warriors’ Chase Center in San Francisco, the Inglewood SoFi Stadium that’s now home to both the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers and the rapidly rising Inglewood basketball arena under construction for the Los Angeles Clippers.
“We have proven we can get it done for stadiums,” said Newsom, “so why…can’t we translate that to all these other projects?” It’s clear he doesn’t want the very people who figure to be most affected by these changes to have any voice in their fate.
This all is a facet of the years-long domination of Sacramento by developers and their allies in the building trade unions. Over the last three years, they have moved politicians whose campaigns they help finance to eliminate virtually all single-family residential zoning around the state, make permitting of small “granny flats” or additional dwelling units almost automatic, allowed creation of six dwelling units on lots formerly occupied by just one and eased the building of high-rises near light rail stops or major city bus routes.
Newsom’s several-pronged attempt to ease CEQA takes this farther, seeking a nine-month limit on legal actions under the law. He also wants more funding for planning departments and other agencies that review large-scale plans and other exceptions to the current law. The presumption is this would speed up their work.
Essentially, CEQA would have few teeth if Newsom gets his way. One pet plan is a long-stymied version of the old Peripheral Canal project, rejected overwhelmingly 43 years ago by state voters. That has now morphed into a plan to bring Sacramento River water south to customers of the state Water Project via a tunnel under the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.
Lawmakers seem prepared to go along. Said Democratic state Senate President Toni Atkins of San Diego, “The climate crisis requires that we move faster to build and strengthen critical infrastructure.”
Both she and Newsom give lip service to the environment while working steadily to denigrate it.
It was much the same under Brown. The onetime seminarian called his efforts to ease CEQA “The Lord’s Work.” In his time, this meant interpreting the law to let developers qualify initiatives OKing their projects for local ballots and then have city councils adopt the initiatives without public votes.
That’s what enabled building both the Chase Center and SoFi Stadium, plus approval for a former SoFi rival stadium once planned in nearby Carson.
This tactic could be repeated as Los Angeles gets set to host the 2028 Olympics, with some competitions to be staged in various other parts of the state.
All this essentially leaves out the folks most affected by big projects, just like it did in Inglewood, where citizens had nothing to say about razing the Hollywood Park racetrack and replacing it with SoFi Stadium’s much more imposing presence.
Wrote attorney Aruna Prabhala of the Center for Biological Diversity, “CEQA offers necessary protections for communities and the environment. We should be wary of exaggerated claims by development interests that suggest otherwise.”
A housing shortage, she said, “does not give us free rein to build recklessly. It’s not clear that the governor has fully considered the unintended consequences of fast-tracking infrastructure projects.”
Added Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, head of the Restore the Delta group that opposes Newsom’s tunnel plan, “(He) does not respect the people in communities that need environmental protection,” she said, citing alleged examples from the coronavirus pandemic era.
What’s clear in all this is that if the people most affected by the potential changes in CEQA don’t speak up to their legislators now, Newsom’s plan will pass, developers will have an even freer rein and those affected by new projects will have even fewer ways to protect themselves, their homes and their lifestyles.