By Tom Elias
“I’ve never seen a CEQA exemption I don’t like.” – Gov. Jerry Brown.
Brown made that observation shortly after starting his second go-‘round as California’s chief executive in early 2011, reacting wryly to his 1990s experience as mayor of Oakland, where the California Environmental Quality Act often forced him to battle for pet housing and school projects, including a military academy he still cherishes.
So ever since Brown resumed the governor’s office he previously held for eight years in the 1970s and ‘80s, he’s okayed one exemption after another to CEQA, passed in 1970, signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and still the state’s key environmental law.
He’s gone along with the developer- and union-influenced Legislature time after time, especially on sports-related projects. These include the Sacramento Kings’ new arena, another arena in the works for the Golden State Warriors in the Mission Bay section of San Francisco, the abortive Farmers Field professional football stadium once proposed for downtown Los Angeles and another failed football venue in Carson.
The largest project to circumvent CEQA so far is the under-construction 70,000-seat football stadium and commercial development on the Inglewood site of the former Hollywood Park racetrack that will house both the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers starting in 2020 or 2021.
That stadium evaded most CEQA issues via a local ballot initiative in sports-mad Inglewood, the former longtime home of basketball’s Los Angeles Lakers. The measure took advantage of an earlier CEQA change which allows developers to qualify local initiatives okaying the projects for a local ballot and then lets city councils adopt those initiatives with no public vote or debate. There’s also no prohibition on voting by city council members who have taken campaign donations from developers involved. Only existing laws banning direct and provable quid-pro-quos apply here.
The emphasis has been on sports projects when it comes to CEQA speedups and exemptions under Brown, but it also includes heavy pushes for items like the so-called Crossroads of the World development near the already jammed intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue in Los Angeles.
Now Brown has approved yet another major CEQA exemption, this one carried in the Legislature by Democratic Assemblyman Miguel Santiago of Los Angeles. The new measure would allow speedups in the approval process for both a planned expansion of Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park and twin skyscrapers near the existing landmark round Capital Records building in Hollywood.
Santiago’s measure entitles any project that costs more than $100 million and meets union-level wage standards, plus standards for greenhouse gas controls, to get final resolution of any CEQA-related lawsuit within nine months.
Objectors to many proposed projects attempt to use CEQA strictures in filing lawsuits aiming to stop developments, big and small.
But after local citizen groups objected, legislators did not send Brown another measure that would have largely exempted from CEQA a new Inglewood arena for the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team
It’s also a truism in modern California that the more transit projects like light rail are built, the more apartment buildings will quickly go up near it, including both affordable and market-rate housing.
Brown, who styles himself a worldwide environmental leader because of his strong backing for renewable energy and his constant battles to stem climate change, had no problem with any of these exemptions. Essentially, he has facilitated some of the most significant building projects in recent California history with little environmental review.
But Brown’s past frustrations with delays in Oakland are no justification for depriving citizens of their right to input on big developments near their homes and businesses, as Brown has now done repeatedly.
It’s almost as if Brown has a severe case of amnesia, forgetting his 2010 campaign promise to devolve more government authority to local citizens and away from state government.
All this is sure to go down in state history as one of the least green and least positive legacies of his long political career.