DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - With the state legislature's approval of AB 900 and SB 292, and Gov. Jerry Brown's recent signing of the bills at a ceremony in Downtown Los Angeles, the political rhetoric over the California Environmental Quality Act has again been ratcheted up. The passage of laws that will expedite the CEQA review process leads those on the environmental fringe to worry that the state is on a slippery slope that will unwind more than 40 years of environmental good.

Most reasonable people - and I include many developers in this group - would acknowledge that the passage of CEQA in 1970 has, for the most part, been a good thing. Before that, both public and private development could move forward with no concern for environmental consequences.

CEQA has since served an important function in informing decision-makers and the public of the expected environmental impacts from the implementation of a development proposal. Most reasonable people - and I include many environmentalists in this group - would also acknowledge that CEQA has been abused by those who file lawsuits for the sole purpose of killing a project by delaying it or by people who view a project as a competitive threat. One notable example occurred in Downtown Los Angeles, when the University Gateway development was delayed for years by legal action from a competing student housing provider. The project ultimately opened, but the opposition caused the cost to soar.

With this as background, it would be funny if it weren't so sad to read about those who have attacked laws to expedite CEQA review on the grounds that they would weaken CEQA. SB 292 applies to Farmers Field, while AB 900 would impact other large projects that create high-wage, highly skilled jobs and do not result in any additional emission of greenhouse gases. There are minor differences in these bills, but both require expedited judicial review so that the state can address our significant, protracted unemployment problem.

Although AEG's Farmers Field (for the record, my firm, Psomas, is doing survey mapping for the football stadium project) seems to be the focus of attention, the expedited court review process outlined in AB 900 applies to projects that meet a suite of high environmental standards. The development, for example, must be certified as LEED silver or better by the U.S. Green Building Council, and must achieve specific greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. The bill also covers clean renewable energy projects that generate electricity exclusively through wind or solar power, and clean energy manufacturing projects.

In order to qualify for protection under AB 900, a project must result in a minimum investment of $100 million and must create highly skilled jobs that pay prevailing and living wages, both during construction and after the development is completed. Additionally, the project cannot result in any additional emission of greenhouse gases.

We should keep in mind that neither SB 292 (the Farmers Field bill) nor AB 900 compromises CEQA at all. Environmental impact reports will still be required for projects that may have a significant effect on the surrounding area - indeed, developer Anschutz Entertainment Group is currently preparing a full EIR for the South Park project.

Also, the public will still have adequate opportunity to review and comment on EIRs, and local agencies must certify the environmental studies. These protections are what earned the bills the backing of leading environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The accomplishments in these bills are particularly meaningful. They mandate that the Court of Appeal will have original jurisdiction (skipping over the superior court) and require that the court issue its decision within 175 days of the filing of the lawsuit.

For those concerned about the proverbial slippery slope, it is interesting to note that these bills do not go as far as AB 81, passed in 2009. That legislation shielded Majestic Realty's EIR for the proposed City of Industry football stadium from a CEQA legal challenge. Neither SB 292 nor AB 900 does this. They merely compel a timely judicial review.

The most strident see this as an erosion of CEQA - the beginning of the end. That's hard to imagine. These bills, which are now laws, just expedite the review process. They don't kill CEQA.

Lastly, if there does remain fear that AB 900 will erode CEQA, people can take comfort in knowing that this important experiment to bring some reasonableness to the process will expire on Jan. 1, 2015. Only then will we be able to evaluate the success or failure of the legislation's attempt to balance environmental concerns and improvement in the state's economy.

Joel Miller is Vice President of Planning and Entitlements at Psomas, a Downtown-based consulting and engineering firm.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2011

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