San Diego has set off down a winding road toward a Chargers stadium vote, and a familiar state environmental law is bound to make an appearance. In fact, it could throw a major wrench in the city’s attempts to woo the NFL team.

Last week, the mayor, city attorney and County Supervisor Ron Roberts announced the city could conduct a vote in a special election Dec. 15. Key word there: “could.”

That timeline poses a challenge for anyone unpracticed in shifting the time-space continuum. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said so himself a while back. From Scott Lewis’ report:

It was the city attorney himself who, a few months ago, raised the problem of timeline and environmental review. The city could not, he wrote, commit to a site for a stadium without studying alternatives.

The California Environmental Quality Act would require the city to analyze all kinds of other possibilities for the facility, disclose the environmental effects of the preferred site and explain why it is preferable in spite of them.

At the time, the city attorney said this would take a year or more. How are they planning to comply so quickly?

As negotiations restart Tuesday, the city’s going to be banking on getting itself a “categorical exemption” to the California Environmental Quality Act, better known as CEQA, KUSI reported. Last month, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins committed to “making sure San Diego can benefit from state legislation that is consistent with what other cities have received for their sports facilities,” meaning, in all likelihood, a CEQA exemption.

That’s earned a glaring side-eye from some folks. Note this subtweet from Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, the state GOP caucus leader, who’s pushed for CEQA exemptions for non-stadium purposes, like water storage:

So the stadium saga is now playing host to the latest CEQA showdown. We’ve done some work digging into the 45-year-old law’s origins, impact and flaws. Get to know CEQA.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Wait, sequins?


You’ve probably heard of the California Environmental Quality Act. The state regulation is frequently namedropped in lawsuits to block development projects. Local attorney Cory Briggs has built his reputation on it.

When you hear people complaining about California’s strict environmental laws, this is almost always what they’re referring to.

READ MORE: Five Big Briggs Lawsuits

The law had good intentions when it emerged in 1970 (thank then-Gov. Ronald Reagan for that). It was supposed to force governments and developers to reveal any potential environmental impacts that might come of a new project. But it can be a huge burden on new development. The fact that CEQA empowers Californians to enforce that accountability establishes a weird dynamic. Or rather, lawsuit-palooza.

“Anyone can sue over a project they don’t think is following it,” Lisa Halverstadt reported, “which means anyone could potentially use the law to gain leverage over an opponent.” That’s precisely what we saw in a battle between two body shop owners in Poway and a transitional housing project in El Cajon, among others.

How does it work?

Not every project is subject to CEQA. Halverstadt summed up the process for deciding whether a development needs a review:

City or county officials must decide whether a project will affect the environment. They can decide a project won’t have any environmental impacts and that no further review is necessary, or that there are some impacts but the developer can make some changes to address them. For example, developers might agree to help pay for an additional traffic lane near their project or incorporate an open space into their plans.

Developers cover the cost for these reviews. Those that find there are impacts that the developers can address tend to cost at least $20,000.

If officials decide there is a significant impact or that the development is controversial, they’ll order an environmental impact report, an extensive document that can number thousands of pages and take a year to complete. Consultants say they generally cost $250,000 to $500,000 in San Diego, though the bills can be much higher for massive projects.

That’s in addition to the time and money businesses and developers fork over just to lay their projects’ plans. And this still doesn’t protect them from potential CEQA lawsuits. Californians can sue over whether the review is adequate, that is, whether that business or developer really considered all of the potential environmental impacts the project might have on surrounding areas.

So a new Chargers stadium might have to go through this process to comply with state environmental law. And that’d be a tight squeeze to get done before Sept. 18 – that’s when City Council would need to approve it to give the county enough time to set up a city-only special election by mail ballot by Dec. 15, as the Union-Tribune laid out.

Sounds like this law isn’t working like it should. What’re the odds it’ll be reformed?


Attorneys say stronger enforcement of CEQA would be great, actually. The state doesn’t have an agency to police it, so that responsibility is left to watchdog citizens and groups. Former San Diego Planning Director Bill Fulton had a cynical take on statewide reform:

“The reason it doesn’t get reformed is because it is to so many people’s advantage to use it as blackmail, to hold somebody else up over something,” he said.

A 2013 reform effort in the state Legislature fell apart even after initially looking sunny:

Talks around the bill dragged on for months, but key provisions of Senate Bill 731 weren’t put on paper until well into the legislative session. When language was finally inserted, interests on all sides found things they didn’t like. Ultimately, the bill was shelved, with minor CEQA reform provisions inserted into another bill designed to fast-track the building of a new arena for Sacramento’s NBA team, the Kings.

“I think, in the end, nobody was happy with it,” Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, said of the Legislature’s attempt.

That’s the rub: The interests involved are so far apart on CEQA. Phillips, for example, said the environmental community would just as soon not see CEQA changed at all. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” she said. “We don’t view it as broken.”

Atkins, the Assembly speaker, has said she’d support reform, specifically “thoughtful reform that actually accomplishes the goals all sides claim to want, a balanced approach that both protects the environment and allows for more certainty for the business community,” according to her spokesman John Casey. Piece of cake.

    This article relates to: CEQA, Chargers Stadium, Land Use, Must Reads

    Written by Catherine Green

    Catherine Green is deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handles daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects. You can contact her directly at or 619.550.5668. Follow her on Twitter: @c_s_green.

    my2centz subscriber

    Since the Mission valley property will need to be developed under any scenario. I think the best course would be for the City to do a full EIR with three options: Chargers stadium; SDSU expansion and mixed housing retail; and a straight commercial/mixed housing development. Many aspects of this plan such as the river park and housing would be common to all three scenarios. By moving the vote to the regular January 2016 election significant cost savings would result which could be applied to the cost of the EIR. Since the Chargers have chosen not to participate in negotiations. I recommend the city use the stadium advisory committees numbers as the basis for voter approval. Under this scenario we could have a voter approved stadium plan with EIR by January. More importantly we would show the NFL that there is a solid commitment for a stadium. After the election depending on the circumstances, We would either have approved the stadium, shot down the stadium or been dumped by the chargers and the NFL. If the Charger move is delayed or denied and they are forced to deal with the city then We have a "shovel ready" plan. I think this would also make it difficult for the Chargers to stonewall or ask for more money which would require another vote. This vote could also be placed on the June ballot at no cost. The Chargers, seeing the progress, may actually show some of their cards. Either way we will have presented a viable plan with several options for the property should the Chargers leave. Or, will be in a strong negotiating position should they desire to stay.

    Diogenes subscriber

    "Reform" means "deregulation." That did not work out so well on Wall Street.

    Critics of CEQA claim that the law can be abused. I suggest than any law can and is being abused.

    The law protects private property. It also now protects the environment. It should protect the commons.

    Developers eat up habitat and make a huge pile of money. Stop feeling sorry for billionaires. I used to develop roperty. I went to law school and took Environmental Law. That was back in 1975. I am now a member of the Environmental Law Section of the State Bar. I keep up with the cases and the policy. I am active in environmental issues. I have never collected a single penny for my services in Environmental Law.

    Those who hate lawyers never actually study and practice law. They rarely understand all of the complex issues. The environment needs protection more than we need more buildings.

    Dean Plassaras
    Dean Plassaras

    BTW, those who have experience with CEQA know that it's a freeloader's game paid for by the actual user who is nowhere to be represented at the time the CEQA challenges arise because he/she has not surfaced yet.

    So here is how the dirty game is played: freeloaders like Briggs sue which either leads to litigation or settlement. Developers add these costs to the total housing or commercial rent costs and in effect pass them on to the consumer.

    This game is so disgusting because in effect it's the equivalent of taxing the unborn. Developers can be thought of as intermediaries because they are not the final holders of title which passes on to individual ownership at a higher cost. They hold title for a brief time and then exit. What they leave behind is a legacy of the cost of doing business which also happens to be a function of their competence or incompetence. No developer or CEQA challenger is thinking about housing affordability. 

    Developers are also naturally paranoid and don't share strategy with one another. So when the first developer gets sued on CEQA grounds it creates a precedent for all other developers to follow. Usually a developer with "weak shoulders"  or "weak knees"gives in faster and/or without merit just because time is money; he/she pays the ransom to the CEQA gatekeeper and there are other weak players who make those costs increase overtime.

    What the public does not realize is that it is their money that is stolen by a class of unethicals who simply pretend to "follow the law" with a premeditated evil twist. They simply do not understand that one of the reasons when the cost of the housing unit shoots abruptly by $50000 to $100000 is because developers are simply passing the costs of lost opportunity, compressed densities and other byproducts of CEQA litigation on to the consumer without any particular concern for affordability and/or protecting consumer rights on grounds of efficiency. Expediency towards settling CEQA challenges does not equal either efficiency or cost optimization.

    One thing is for certain: one of the biggest foes of smart growth could be usually found in misapplied CEQA contrived obstacles.

    The sad part is the consumer pays for such inefficiencies and he/she is not even asked or protected against such abuse. 

    tarfu7 subscribermember

    @Dean Plassaras The consumer may pay for the inefficiency of CEQA (although this is an indirect connection), but the consumer also directly benefits from the disclosure and environmental protections that CEQA provides. Prior to CEQA, our history is littered with examples of communities (particularly poor/minority communities who have little political power) bearing the brunt of pollution and other harms from projects like industrial facilities, highways, etc. 

    CEQA certainly could use reform, but blaming it for CA's high housing costs is misguided. Plenty of metro regions outside California also have high housing costs, and they don't have CEQA. 

    Dean Plassaras
    Dean Plassaras

    @tarfu7 @Dean Plassaras I am not against transparency. All I can assure you is that I have seen and experienced CEQA abuse with my own eyes. It's used as political tool and in ways far deviating from environmental disclosure. I am friend of environmentalism, however, many in the environmental and political spheres are cold blooded obstructionists dedicated to delivering harm rather than a public good. And that's the truth and nothing but the truth. I have been approached by attorneys asking me if I wanted to stop a number of projects with the absolute confidence that such projects could be stopped. I was disgusted by such legal unsolicited offers strongly resembling prostitution. 

    Dean Plassaras
    Dean Plassaras

    I think the mayor is too eager and too emotionally attached towards another losing deal with the NFL. This is alarming because the city has been consistently taken to the cleaners on all prior stadium and NFL related negotiations. Someone needs to tell the mayor to get off this "uber positive" mode because this is clearly working against the city. Let it become apparent (through passage of time) that Carson is a fake and the city's hand will eventually strengthen. Don't push for decisions under a self-induced panic mode. No good.

    The owner's motive is apparent: he wants the downtown location (an $1.8 Billion stadium financed through transient occupancy tax) and time frames will be relaxed for another 1-2 years. Carson is a 100% fake and anything attached to it is  artificial and contrived.

    Above all the city must do 3 things starting right now:

    1. Stop negotiating with itself

    2. Realize that it has been played on the Carson fake. It moved heaven and earth to accommodate the owner's fabricated urgency and the owner is sticking to his plan of total city capitulation.

    3. Pull itself together before another ruinous negotiation and on matters whereby the city has a truly catastrophic record of humiliating defeats over an impressive span of 30+ years. You can't afford to lose again. Losing is an art practiced by the Chargers on the field and not for the city to replicate every 10-15 years.

    P.S. Here is the owner's plan featuring as "Option 2":