It has been called “the law that swallowed California.” CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, accomplished good things at its inception in 1970 but now it is used to thwart nearly any kind of development someone doesn’t want.
“CEQA is not intended as a population control measure,” observed the Court of Appeal in a recent CEQA case, Tiburon Open Space Comm. v. Cnty. of Marin (May 12, 2022, A159860), which rejected a neighborhood group’s efforts to stymie a development project. And yet the way it is used today suggests that “[s]omething is very wrong with this picture.”
In this clip, Peter Prows, an environmental attorney who handles a lot of CEQA cases, runs down the good, the bad, and the ugly of CEQA and the Tiburon case:
The original “grand design” of CEQA was not to frustrate the democratic process but to promote it: projects could go forward, “but only after the elected decisionmakers have their noses rubbed in [the project’s] environmental effects, and vote to go forward anyway.”
Matt Taibbi’s article about how CEQA, as deployed today, acts as a backdoor subsidy to owners of California’s existing housing stock, paid for by new entrants to the housing market (who happen also to be laboring under swelling tuition debt).
CEQA is often used to frustrate high-density projects. But Tiburon involved a decades-long battle to thwart just 43 single-family homes. CEQA can be used as a bludgeon for anyone, so there is something to hate for everyone.