A Lesson in California Politics:

How to Defend your Territory While Simultaneously Ruining it

Most of my California peers don’t have territory to defend, since we aren’t homeowners, but there’s a tenacious batch of people who do own homes and found one neat trick to keep us off their lawn: CEQA.

CEQA is a state law that these turf-claimers use to “protect” their way of life while the rest of us don’t even know it exists. I’ve railed on CEQA before, but mostly in noisy, dimly lit bars, and it never goes very far before my Tinder date tells me it’s getting late and they have to go.

“Oh, a-already? Well, I’ll send you the article I was talking about -”

“My Uber’s here.”

CEQA stands for California Environmental Quality Act. It calls for a lengthy review process of new projects that may have a significant impact on the environment — commercial office space, transit, housing, things of that nature. Pretty much anything that is built in the state of California is subject to a CEQA review.

And that’s a really good thing. Before CEQA passed in 1970, the environmental impact of new projects tended to be a reactive consideration rather than a proactive one, and the results were not pretty. After environmental disasters like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history, California voters had good reason to call for new environmental protections.

I won’t spend more time justifying all that, because it should be fairly obvious to anyone that is not the Koch Brothers or Mr. Burns.

“Enviro-what? Is that a type of caviar?”

The point of CEQA, however, was not to stop development all together. Development is not inherently bad — we need some amount of it to live modern lives. And that can be achieved responsibly. But in the unfortunate irony we now find ourselves in, many environmentally-conscious projects put forth today actually end up being blocked due to CEQA.

So what’s the problem?

Lawsuits. As reported by the law firm Holland & Knight, the abuse of CEQA litigation is effectively obstructing the state’s ability to add or improve infrastructure — infrastructure we desperately need to responsibly support a growing population. As a result, we are experiencing worsening urban and suburban sprawl, traffic, congestion, and basically a bunch of things that are generally not good for the environment.

Remember that irony I mentioned?

But back to our territorial friends mentioned earlier — surprisingly, most of the time it is not non-profits or environmental advocacy groups who are suing to block new projects.

It’s your neighbors.

64% of CEQA lawsuits are filed by either individuals or local/neighborhood associations.

Neighbors who tend to own spacious homes, drive on wide, paved roads that lead to their homes, and who have no prior track record of environmental advocacy.

“We must preserve nature!” -person whose house replaced nature

Ok, but why is that bad? What’s wrong with homeowners suing to protect the environment? Leigha, why do you hate grasshoppers?

Because the vast majority of these complaints have nothing to do with protecting the environment.

And I love grasshoppers. Sometimes I wish I was a grasshopper. Sometimes I wish we were all grasshoppers.

Back to CEQA. Here are the types of projects neighbor-folks are suing over, followed by a brief explanation of why

1) their litigation target is a good environment thing, and

2) suing to make it go away is a bad environment thing.

Most of these are really, really obvious, but just in case there is a lone NIMBY out there reading this, maybe this will be a nice educational guide for them.

Infill projects

“80 percent of CEQA lawsuits target infill projects in established communities rather than greenfield projects on undeveloped or agricultural lands outside established communities.”

Infill projects are awesome, and we need more of them. Instead of plopping down a bunch of tract housing on some nice open green space — and arguably disrupting that ecosystem — infill projects take advantage of existing developed areas and infrastructure to add more housing. When you build out in the boonies, you need new roads to get there, expansion of utilities like water and electricity, and you get a bunch of new long-distance commuters. Infill leverages existing resources and reduces sprawl. More like winfill, am I right? Up top!

City Services

“CEQA litigation is overwhelmingly used in cities. Special interest CEQA lawsuits often target core urban services such as parks, schools, libraries and even senior housing.”

Geez, this is brutal. Suing to keep out new schools and parks? What are you, a Koch Brother? Anyway, adding things like libraries and parks to dense cities generally has a pretty minimal incremental impact on the environment because cities are already developed. Although, libraries do use lots of paper, so, I’ll give you a logic point on this one, NIMBYs. But if you have to choose between putting up new housing where there are already lots of humans (and not lots of coyotes), and the beautiful rolling hills outside the city (where there are lots of coyotes) — which do you think is better for the coyotes? For the record, it’s one thing if you just don’t want to share your city with other people, but that’s a human concern — not an environmental one.

Public Transportation

“CEQA’s most frequently targeted public infrastructure project: transit.”

Transit means not-cars, which means efficient movement of people, less cars, less congestion, and less pollution. Transit takes cars off the road, which, all else equal, tends to reduce each rider’s carbon footprint. Man, I told you this stuff was obvious. Plus, living near transit is sweet! Living close to a BART/CalTrain station is the dream. Dear California, please build a light rail station out to NoPa, I promise not to sue you.

Renewable Energy Projects

“CEQA’s most frequently targeted industrial/utility project: renewable energy.”

LOL. Guys, come on. This one is just too easy. Renewable energy is good for the environment because DUH and blocking renewable energy projects is bad for the environment because SERIOUSLY COME ON.

What Holland & Knight’s 140 page report boils down to, minus the diplomacy: most of these lawsuits are a bunch of horseshit. Well, then again, horseshit can be used as manure, which is a nice eco-friendly way to fertilize soil, so I won’t give CEQA-litigation-happy-NIMBYs the satisfaction of being compared to horseshit.

And at the end of the day, their litigious behavior is really screwing over the rest of us. Every time Mrs. Crabapple down the street wins a CEQA lawsuit, the rest of us lose out on new homes, parks, mass transit, and other civic infrastructure. And future generations lose out even more, as we ignore pressing realities of population growth, its impact on the environment, and its impact on everyone’s quality of life.

“Of greatest concern at a policy and political level, CEQA litigation abuse allows polite, passionate neighbors to oppose change — in the name of “the environment” — including the changes required to address environmental priorities such as climate change, and changes required to address California’s growing population, including people of different economic, ethnic, religious and other demographic characteristics than project opponents.

Which leaves a state with irresponsible growth patterns, inadequate infrastructure, and ungodly real estate prices.

The H&K report suggests moderate reforms to CEQA that could end this pattern of litigation abuse, such as:

  1. Requiring petitioners to disclose their identity and environmental interest
  2. Eliminating duplicative lawsuits against projects that have already completed the CEQA process
  3. Limiting judicial invalidation to only those projects that would “harm public health, destroy irreplaceable tribal resources, or threaten the ecology.”

These are indeed moderate, as there is still a fair amount of project-killing power implicit in these recommendations. But bringing additional transparency and accountability to the judicial process is a good place to start.

Whatever the remedy is — it can’t come soon enough.

In the meantime, the owners of territory will continue to benefit at the expense of the territory they claim to protect.