One of the country’s largest mall developers, Caruso Affiliated, is pushing through a plan for a shopping center near coastal wetlands in Carlsbad using a novel method that could allow it to bypass many of the state’s environmental protection rules.
A California Supreme Court decision last August ruled that if a project gets enough signatures to put it on the ballot, a city council can approve it without going to voters and without a California Environmental Quality Act review, the state’s landmark environmental law that sets mandates for big projects to disclose their environmental impacts and reduce as many of them as possible. Two proposed football stadiums in Inglewood and Carson used voter initiatives to leapfrog CEQA, and Caruso is trying to make it happen for the first time locally.
Caruso is a Los Angeles-based developer, and to call what it typically creates a shopping mall isn’t quite right. Its projects – like The Grove in Los Angeles and Americana in nearby Glendale – are massive and ornate, kind of like if your hometown mall and Disneyland had a love child.
The company’s proposed plan in Carlsbad would take 200 acres between I-5 and the south shore of Agua Hedionda Lagoon, turn 15 percent of it into a shopping center and leave the rest for agriculture and trails.
Caruso only needed to collect 15 percent of registered Carlsbad voters’ signatures to qualify the measure for a vote – it submitted twice the number of signatures they needed in early July – and now it only needs to lobby the City Council for the three votes necessary to pass the measure in the next Council meeting on Aug. 25.
The company decided to go this route last September, shortly after the Supreme Court ruling and three years after it entered into an agreement with SDG&E for the property.
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Caruso has spent millions of dollars trying to use a ballot initiative to bypass CEQA review of their project. If Prop A fails, it will send a very clear message to other developers that this type of land use planning by initiative is a very expensive dead end,
and that they can save time and money by simply complying with the law.
This makes clear the urgent need for legislation to close this loophole allowing a developer with enough money to collect initiative signatures to bypass CEQA.
CEQA review has often resulted in cooperative modifications to a project, between developer and those concerned about impacts, which have improved a project proposal and brought opposition on board as supporters. One hears only about the handful of projects that run into serious opposition, usually because the project exceeds local planning guidelines and established zoning regulations.
For over 30 years, I have been involved with a citizens non-profit which advocates for good planning for the natural and built environment. I could provide a lengthy list of projects over many years which garnered support from our group and other good planning/environmental advocates because of positive discussions between these types of groups and developers, avoiding the polarization that some recent major project proposals have created.