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CEQA WORKS

The California Environmental Quality Act has protected California’s wildlife, waterways, open space and clean air for more than 40 years. It has allowed citizens a voice in a development process that is normally controlled by real-estate developers and government officials beholden to the real-estate industry.

Much information is spread by those seeking to see our environmental laws gutted or undermined. Shrill claims that the law is abused overlook the fact that there are already provisions in the law for sanctions of frivolous lawsuits. Also overlooked are recent changes in the law to encourage infill development (rather than sprawl).

Critics of the law seek to disenfranchise environmental groups, neighborhood groups, and labor organizations from being involved in the decision-making process on how development affects our communities. Let’s set the facts straight: Everyone deserves a place at the table when it comes to deciding the future of our homes and neighborhoods.

For nearly two decades the Center has used its voice to speak on behalf of wild places, endangered species, clean water and clean air, working to protect California’s great biological diversity and dynamic ecosystems and helping keep the state the extraordinary place that we all want it to be.

Our past successes demonstrate that the state’s Environmental Quality act works and works well, as designed. Some notable examples include:

PALMWOOD

This housing and golf course development adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park would have been built smack in the middle of a regionally recognized wildlife-conservation area and important wildlife-linkage corridor. The site is home to numerous rare species including bighorn sheep, burrowing owls, Palm Springs pocket mice, Palm Springs round-tailed ground squirrels, Le Conte’s thrashers and loggerhead shrikes. The project was approved by a rushed vote by the city of Desert Hot Springs over the strenuous objections of local residents and environmental groups, who observed that the site was fraught with flood-control problems, poor public access and tremendous negative impacts to species. But a lawsuit filed by the Center and our allies stopped the project, as the court agreed that CEQA required the city to properly disclose and consider the project’s impacts.

The court decision allowed everybody to pause and reconsider whether a housing development on this property was really the best thing for the community and the region, let alone the species that already called the land home. And amazingly, the community came to a different conclusion the second time around — most of the land was purchased and permanently protected under the regional conservation plan. Around the same time, some ugly truths emerged about the real-estate speculator who had been pushing the project (and who had earlier won over plenty of local politicians): He ended up in federal prison after pleading guilty to fraud charges related to his efforts to develop the Palmwood project.

Without CEQA, and the efforts of the Center and our allies to use the law to stop this terrible project, we might have lost this piece of paradise forever. Instead, hikers, desert tortoises and many other creatures will continue to amble through these unique washes and canyons filled with native flora.

HAWARDEN

When a developer sought to build hundreds of homes on steep, wooded terrain in the San Bernardino Mountains with no specific water supply and a dead-end fire evacuation road, the county of San Bernardino rushed to grant him his approvals. Never mind the hundreds of people whose lives would be at risk in the case of a wildfire (an all-too-common occurrence in this part of the state) or the rare and protected species whose habitat would be destroyed, like the southern rubber boa. The public was outraged, and even the local press (normally fairly pro-developer) was incredulous, observing that it “is decisions like these, that seem to ignore, and even thumb their noses at, such common-sense objections by residents, that make people question whether their elected officials are really working for them. Or if they are simply bowing to the power of money.”

But the Center and our allies filed suit under CEQA and won. We won in the trial court, the appeal court, the trial court again, and the appeal court again, ensuring that this project — with all of its problems and dangers — would not be built. The extreme steep slopes, high fire risk, lack of water, and no evacuation route — all confirmed by this lawsuit — make it unlikely that this ecologically important property will ever be paved over for development.

Sadly, in yet another example of local government officials doing the bidding of a developer while not doing their homework, San Bernardino County was left holding the bag for the costs of all of the developer’s appeals and aggressive litigation maneuvers when the developer — or at least his shell holding company — seemingly disappeared. His promise to reimburse the county for any litigation costs was as illusory as the promises contained in his failed development plan, and it was only CEQA that brought all of this to light and prevented the project from becoming a reality.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/PeteBobb