CEQA: Special interest groups’ favorite toy

March 12, 2014 | By JONATHAN WILLIAMS

Union activists in San Francisco recently filed suit to block Google’s commuter buses from stopping at City bus stations– a privilege for which Google pays the City handsomely. Why might activists use an environmental regulation to block buses that eliminate at least 45 million vehicle miles and 761,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year and also includes a $6.8 million gift to support transit for low and moderate income youths? It’s impossible to know about the Service Employees Union’s real motives but its leadership suggests the suit is not about green— unless you mean greenbacks. SEIU is concerned that Google Bus could lead to less reliance on the publicly subsidized transportation system—in effect reducing the union’s choke-hold on bay area transportation and perhaps threatening their high-paying jobs.

Unfortunately, using California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for non-environmental motives is a common problem. In large part because California is one of only three states that subject private projects to this scrutiny, competing groups use the threat of CEQA litigation to obtain special benefits that have nothing to do with the environment. In fact, CEQA abuse often harms the environment by delaying renewable-energy projects, infills, public transit, and other “green” projects.

Unions often use CEQA to delay projects until developers capitulate to project labor agreements that exclude non-union labor. In fact, large scale projects are rarely completed without a project labor agreement. In San Diego, for example, officials used private emails to secretly negotiate guaranteed project labor agreements in exchange for dropping a CEQA lawsuit.

Although union lawsuits receive the most attention, CEQA is also abused by other groups. Former Governors Wilson, Deukmejian, and Davis wrote that CEQA is used for reasons having little to do with the environmental benefits but instead to, “gain a competitive edge, to leverage concessions from a project, or by neighbors who simply don’t want any new growth…no matter how worthy or environmentally beneficial.” One company was even subject to a federal racketeering lawsuit for filing suits against its competitor throughout the state. Taxi companies have stepped in to use CEQA to block competition. Neighborhood groups use CEQA to extract bribes or otherwise control the actions of private parties. Impressively, CEQA even shields attorneys from disclosing who they represent—this information is only rarely leaked to the public.

Even though these lawsuits delay, eliminate, or put at risk up to 300,000 jobs and $1.25 billion in construction in Southern California alone, there seems to be no end in sight for CEQA abuse. Efforts to reform the regulation have only resulted in exemptions for certain projects—such as sports stadiums. Reformers have proposed changes that would help end these nefarious tactics. In fact, last year nearly 30 bills were introduced to reform CEQA. However, despite the fact that labor groups have started splintering over the possibility that abuse will drive even more jobs from California; the legislature hasn’t taken any steps to change the law.

Due to this logjam, the courts remain the most promising arena for CEQA reform. During 2013 courts published more than 2 dozen opinions about the issue. Pacific Legal Foundation remains at the forefront of the movement for CEQA reform.