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Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Publisher’s Notebook

• See CEQA Clearly •

BY ANNE SOBLE

When Governor Ronald Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act into law in 1970, it is unlikely that the legislation’s potential to equalize political battles between the state's financial Davids and Goliaths over future development was fully appreciated.
Four decades later, however, few would challenge the premise that CEQA has facilitated environmental victories that might never have gotten passed the filing of the first legal brief without it.
Last year, tentative moves to weaken CEQA surfaced in the state legislature and the governor’s office. This year, there is increased momentum to “modernize” or “streamline” the legislation as business and development interests try to use social and economic issues as wedges to weaken local control and ease the curbs on quality of life and natural resource protection.
CEQA gives those who might otherwise be shut out of local planning decisions affordable alternatives to try to level the political playing field. It may not be perfect legislation, and the courts are not always the best turf for public policy formulation, but prior to CEQA, those with the most funds for attorneys and consultants nearly always came out on top.
CEQA raises air and water quality issues, health and safety concerns, density impacts and other factors. More importantly, the law requires access to information, facilitates public participation in the process, and enables the public to take action when local government does not.
CEQA proponents do not challenge need for improving the noticing and other administrative processes that may lead to extremely lengthy project processing, but obstruction is a valuable public policy tool, particularly between economically disparate opponents.
No one should object to CEQA modifications that give all parties more certainty with regard to the environmental review process. This debate also is important to city and county officials who are often juggling the contradictory objectives of those in their communities.
Currently, there are attempts at CEQA modifications wending their way through the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. These bills should be monitored closely by anyone concerned lest the pendulum swing away from environmental protection.
There are those attempting to use the sluggish economic climate as a reason to dilute environmental protection. Others, however, contend that CEQA should be made stronger with an environmental justice component and stricter curbs on environmentally damaging projects that cannot be mitigated. 
Whatever changes, if any, may be made to CEQA this year, transparency, mitigation, cumulative analysis of impacts, public participation, and the right to use the court system to enforce these protections are critical to its legal foundation.
Malibuites should monitor whether local officials weigh in on any proposed CEQA changes in Sacramento that might limit their ability to take action if they are concerned that proposed development reflects political agendas contrary to a collective perception of public interest.
Without the backup power of a CEQA, a slingshot is just a slingshot. With a CEQA providing reinforcement at the front line, a slingshot has the potential to be a cannon.

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