Top CEQA Experts Examine the Past, and Debate the Future, of CA’s Preeminent Environment Law at UC Davis School of Law Conference

On Friday, November 4th, the UC Davis School of Law hosted “CEQA at 40: A Look Back and Forward”.  Featuring panelists from all three branches of government, environmental attorneys, developers, academics and students, lively discussions ensued around one of the nation’s most important environment protection laws.  Featured panels focused on the first forty years of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), including: the stories behind its passage; how the law has evolved since 1970; and how its protections compare to those in the federal National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and other ‘little-NEPA’ statues across the nation and across nations.  Just as importantly, panels focused on CEQA in the years to come.

While initially passed with widespread and bipartisan support, and signed into law by then-Governor Ronald Reagan, CEQA has been controversial since shortly after its passage, when it became clear how widespread the impacts of the law would be. This controversy has been growing in recent years, with the Legislature facing a never-ending barrage of bills attempting to weaken CEQA protections through exemptions, judicial streamlining or other techniques.

The one area where all panelists agreed, was that CEQA has been a truly transformative law that has touched virtually every aspect of California life, and remains the State’s (and one of the nation’s) preeminent environmental laws more than four decades after its passage.

Several key themes were prominent throughout the discussion. First, despite the many years since the bill’s passage, there has been little in the way of a comprehensive assessment of its impacts. While anecdotes exist on both sides of the debate (and PCL’s own Everyday Heroes was cited as an excellent source of information on CEQA’s positive impacts), there is no recent, comprehensive examination of CEQA: its benefits and costs, or where it can be improved. This means there is scant evidence supporting current efforts to amend CEQA. Several panelists noted the need for such an independent assessment, with California Senator Lois Wolk even proposing the idea of convening a legislative task force to undertake such a CEQA assessment.

A second theme was CEQA’s key role in land-use planning. While perhaps not intended as such when first passed, the failure
local “General Plans” and other efforts to promote more sustainable planning principles has left CEQA as, de facto, perhaps the most critical land-use law in California. Whether this is a good or bad thing was open to debate, with
some project proponents decrying CEQA’s prominent role in land use planning, while other (largely environmental) representatives argued that CEQA is often the last line of defense for residents looking to protect their communities.
Whether CEQA will continue in this role was another question. Senate Bill 375 (Steinberg) was held out as an effort to improve local and regional land-use planning through the adoption of Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCSs), which may reduce the need to rely on CEQA (and, in fact, SB 375 offers limited CEQA exemptions for infill and transit-oriented projects). Others, however, noted that the jury is still out as to whether SB 375 will prove useful in promoting smart growth concepts, meaning CEQA may still be needed to fill this important role.

From PCL’s perspective, CEQA provides critical protections for the health and vitality of our communities and the environment, and is a model for good governance through its requirements for public disclosure and participation, and informed decision-making. As CEQA continues to be a major focus of attention by environmentalists, labor, developers and community activists, the conversation will only heat up more as the 2012 legislative session gets closer. The Planning and Conservation League will be there to fight for protection and improvement of this historic law, and we look forward to keeping you updated and engaged in this important effort.