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Jonas Peterson: Environmental reform needed

Posted: March 22, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: March 22, 2013 2:00 a.m.
 

At a time when California is striving to encourage both sustainable growth and job creation, reforming the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is imperative.

This law is in need of thoughtful changes to make it function in a way that promotes, not hinders, the type of economic growth and job creation that California, and our Santa Clarita Valley, both need.

State Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has recently begun this process by introducing Senate Bill 731, legislation that sets up the initial framework for more meaningful CEQA modernization discussions.

Other pieces of legislation, such as AB 930 and AB 1079, have introduced the idea of fast-tracking projects in enterprise zones, a concept that would be highly beneficial to our valley.

From my point of view, these bills, along with others, show a growing momentum to reform CEQA and strike a new balance between environmental protection and responsible economic growth.

In the 43 years since CEQA’s passage, the law has served as a vital tool to protect our environment. It has ensured that proposed local development projects undergo a rigorous environmental review process and the impacts of new projects on the environment are adequately mitigated.

However, it has also become a tool frequently used by those who seek to halt projects — often for reasons that have little or nothing to do with environmental protection. Those misuses of CEQA need to be addressed and stopped.

Many important local projects have been unnecessarily delayed due to CEQA-related challenges, often for anti-growth reasons that have nothing to do with environmental protection.

For example, Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital faced a lengthy and expensive CEQA challenge before it could move forward with a master-planned expansion to bring new health services and an improved campus to the Santa Clarita Valley.

Challenges with CEQA have also held up critical road and infrastructure improvements, including the Decoro Bridge and the cross-valley connector; many public projects such as new schools get entangled in CEQA litigation, including a lawsuit currently pending against the proposed high school in Castaic; and, of course, developments like Vista Canyon, Needham Ranch and Newhall Ranch have all been subject to CEQA litigation, delaying the jobs and services they will provide.

In the case of Newhall Ranch, opponents have used CEQA numerous times to litigate on issues previously determined by the court.

Throughout the state, CEQA regulations have gridlocked affordable housing, schools, renewable energy projects, hospitals and many other local renewal and environmentally desirable projects we need.

In fact, according to a review of CEQA cases from 1997–2012 that went before the Appellate or California Supreme Court, 59 percent of CEQA-related lawsuits were filed against infill projects, and 36 percent were filed against public works projects like schools, universities or roads.

In an effort to increase opportunities for responsible development, create jobs and enhance business growth in California, CEQA needs to be modernized.

Changes need to ensure that projects conforming to California’s rigorous environmental laws and local and federal regulations are able to move forward without the threat of meritless lawsuits having nothing to do with ecological preservation.

Achieving these goals will not be easy, but with participation from diverse stakeholders and commitment from legislators on both sides of the aisle, meaningful CEQA reform can and should be accomplished this year.

We urge legislators to make this a top priority.

Jonas Peterson is president and CEO of the Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Corporation, which represents regional industry and government leaders seeking to provide an integrated approach to attracting, retaining and expanding a diversity of business and industry in the Santa Clarita Valley.

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