Our society is made up of “haves” and “have-nots.”

Commentary - in-story logoThe disparity is glaringly evident in the legal profession. Just ask ordinary people about how much they incurred in fees and costs when they needed to hire a lawyer. Like other aspects of life, the wealthy can and do use the legal system to their advantage. Wealthy people sue not-so-wealthy people and large companies sue small companies, knowing full well that their resources give them an advantage in a system that requires you to pay to play.

It’s with this recognition that I have to wonder about what I see as a steady stream of complaints about CEQA abuse. First off, let’s be clear about one thing: I don’t think most people making these complaints are really concerned about the effects of CEQA itself. It isn’t like “elder abuse” or “spousal abuse” – the people complaining are normally trying to reduce CEQA’s reach (if not gut it entirely).  In other words, the ones complaining don’t seem to have CEQA’s health on their agenda.

The complainers challenge the motives of those who file CEQA cases, claiming some are merely motivated by money or other non-environmental concerns. It’s as if there’s some altruism requirement to filing a CEQA case. But who’s to decide what motivations are altruistic enough?

I once represented some folks affiliated with a small business who were concerned that a competitor had received approvals without the same type of air and water quality controls they had to install. My clients saw the issue as one of basic fairness; are we to say their concerns were not sufficiently “environmental” in nature and therefore no suit should be possible?

The complainers also critique the high cost of CEQA compliance. This critique is particularly rich. I have seen several authors of environmental documents bend over backward to try to avoid stating the obvious – that whether or not the project is a good idea, it’s going to exact a high toll on the environment.

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

CEQA is an environmental disclosure statute. It is refreshing when a CEQA document actually acknowledges the impacts of a project, and it takes far fewer pages (and less consultant costs) to describe the impact and appropriate mitigation than it does to contort like a pretzel to avoid admitting these impacts.

Frankly, I don’t think the complainers are worried about CEQA abuse at all. I think they don’t like the fact that CEQA turns the normal system on its head – not-so-wealthy people and nonprofit groups can sue agencies and wealthy companies to ensure that the conversation about a project is a little more honest.

In that sense, CEQA allows ordinary folks (often branded by the PR firms of those wealthy companies as “NIMBYs”) to fight City Hall. And perhaps that’s what has these complainers really up in arms – how dare the “have-nots” actually challenge the “haves”!

Everett DeLano is a partner with the Escondido law firm of DeLano & DeLano. DeLano’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: CEQA, Opinion

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    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    I join other commenters in wondering why VOSD leaves it to an op-ed to delve into this side of the issue. Balanced journalism would include coverage of the benefits of CEQA, not just dramatic stories of alleged abuse. Alas, VOSD has seemed determined to cast CEQA as a villain with no positive value. Reminds me of Fox News coverage of the surfer on food stamps. There are always anomalies and they make for good click bait. But are they representative? Good journalism delves into that side of the question..


    michael-leonard subscriber

    Small thing,but why use this photo to illustrate this article?

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    All lawyers are not alike.  DeLano could have found a much more lucrative area of law to practice. He does what he does because he cares.  Any law can be misused on occasion.  I have found the continued unbalanced attacks on CEQA troubling.  Yes, it can be misused, but overall it has done good, and the focus of the Voice has been the ill.  And the ill is usually because of politics and money, the same reason any law can be turned against the public.

    Where is Rob Davis when you need him?

    Carrie subscribermember

    As an antidote to the continuing and disturbing dissing of CEQA by VOSD, read the Planning and Conservation League's summary of 35 years of why CEQA has been valuable:


    CEQA simply compels disclosure of environmental impacts, and requires a plan for avoiding or mitigating them. It does not compel a particular decision by decision-making authorities. So, if crappy decisions are being made, don't blame CEQA, blame the decision makers.

    paul jamason
    paul jamason subscribermember

    Mr. DeLano concludes, "CEQA allows ordinary folks  to fight City Hall. How dare the “have-nots” actually challenge the “haves”!'

    Late last year, Metro CDC, a group composed of wealthy Bankers Hill and Mission Hills residents and attorneys, sued the city on CEQA grounds to remove a bike lane from 5th Avenue in Bankers Hill/Hillcrest (
    http://la.streetsblog.org/2014/12/22/san-diego-sued-for-putting-in-a-bike-lane/).  Their reasoning was that converting one of three auto lanes to a bike lane would increase traffic congestion, and divert traffic to nearby streets, negatively impacting commuters and residents (neither has happened).  The lawsuit relies heavily on the outdated auto Level of Service metric, which only considers motorists, and has been dropped by the state.

    Using CEQA to remove bike lanes - something that helps the environment - to promote high-speed auto flow is CEQA abuse, plain and simple.  In this case, it's precisely the wealthy "haves" of Metro CDC who are attempting to take something away from the "have-nots", since a high percentage of people on bikes are lower-income (http://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/memo-to-cities-most-cyclists-arent-urban-hipsters.html).  

    Mystic Traveler
    Mystic Traveler subscriber

    The residents of California are the beneficiaries of CEQA, and it has been crucial to for protecting the quality of life and the environment throughout the state.  I am not a lawyer and CEQA has been of great value, and I'm very happy for the protections it gives me.

    William Charles
    William Charles

    Of course the guy defending CEQA is a lawyer... they are the only beneficiaries of this un-elected bureaucracy

    George Courser
    George Courser subscriber

    Can you imagine what San Diego's quality of life would be without CEQA?

    We only have to look to what our neighbors in Tijuana endure with water pollution, ungoverned air quality and questionable sanitation. CEQA puts San Diego governments to the test: to simply describe the impacts of their decisions. Forthright language by government is rare - yet CEQA demands integrity and full impact disclosure by elected officials who approve projects. CEQA also provides a self-screening map for developers. Project salesmanship held to CEQA standards acts as an internal regulating mechanism - a "sobriety checkpoint" for investors perusing environmental impact reports. Most agree, full disclosure fosters the best government.