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All Roads – Including the One to a Stadium – Lead to CEQA

An oft-namedropped state environmental law is going to come into play in this ongoing saga over the Chargers stadium. Here's why.

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.

Wait, sequins?

No. CEQA.

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?

Low.

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.

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