Some Napa County supervisors spoke in favor of reforming the California Environmental Quality Act Tuesday, but stopped short of throwing their support behind any specific proposal that’s currently being considered in the Legislature.
Changes to the law, now more than 40 years old, have garnered interest among legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown, who contend that its provisions lend themselves to abuses among special interest groups intent on stopping development projects.
Critics of the law assert special interest groups seeking to delay or stop projects will file lawsuits under CEQA, dragging out the land-use and planning process while driving up developers’ costs.
But supporters say it provides much-needed protection to the environment and to residents, who are able to better gauge project impacts and participate in the process by offering comments and attending public hearings.
Supervisor Mark Luce said he supported the notion of reforming the law, and asserted that the CEQA process offers important protections but needs streamlining.
“Anyone with enough money and a lawyer can stop it,” Luce said. “There does need to be a check, but it needs to be an expedient check.”
Supervisor Diane Dillon urged her fellow supervisors to be cautious in considering whether to support specific legislative proposals, including one that would create six courts throughout the state specifically for hearing CEQA cases.
Luce said the courts would be staffed with political appointments, which he said “essentially politicizes the process even more than it is.”
He agreed with Dillon on the need for caution, and said some proposals would only make the situation worse.
“There are a whole host of bills that make things worse,” Luce said. “We have to go through this carefully. I think there’s a huge need for reform.”
Sandy Elles, executive director of the Napa County Farm Bureau, urged the supervisors not to be hasty in staking out positions on the proposals. While having to read 5,000-page CEQA documents doesn’t help public transparency, Elles said CEQA is still an invaluable legal tool for the public.
“I don’t want to see the public and stakeholders lose their ability to utilize this very important public process,” Elles said. “It’s a very delicate process to reform CEQA.”
John Stephens, a member of Earth Defense for the Environment Now, argued that the goals of CEQA reform — preventing delays and litigation — might be undermined if the public loses its ability to weigh in on projects during the process.
“If the public is restricted in commenting on projects, I assert there will be more litigation and more delays,” Stephens said. “This reform of CEQA is counterproductive.”
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to add CEQA reform to its legislative platform during its meeting Tuesday, which is a step that would help the county take positions on specific bills advancing through the legislative process in Sacramento.
Larry Florin, director of the Housing and Intergovernmental Affairs Department, told the board that the county may soon be asked to support or oppose bills, depending on what comes out of the legislative process.
Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said adding the topic to the county’s legislative platform is needed to ensure Napa will be able to offer its opinions, if it becomes clear that some reform measures are likely to move forward this year.
“If we take no action today, it kind of happens without us,” Wagenknecht said.