How Well Is CEQA Working?

California Policy Seminar Review Suggests the State's Environmental Law Could Be Improved

by Jacqueline Frost

Officials must both standardize and broaden the review process to make the California Environmental Quality Act fairer and better able to protect the environment, according to a new UC study.

The first comprehensive review of the 25-year-old law, commonly referred to by its acronym, CEQA, found that a project-by-project review of development doesn't do enough to assess its cumulative impact, especially on air quality, habitat and transportation.

Authors of the two-volume report from the California Policy Seminar also recommended that officials apply standards to make the review process consistent throughout the state.

Among the changes suggested:

o Require state agencies to participate more fully in the process.

o Require local agencies to adopt standardized thresholds to ensure consistent project-to-project review.

o Transfer responsibility for review of regional air, water and habitat issues from local governments to regional review agencies able to see the larger picture.

The report evaluated the performance of environmental regulation in other states and in 14 California cities and counties. The authors found that while California subjects a much larger number of private projects and governmental actions to environmental review, its requirements are no more complex than other states.

In addition, a 1990 survey of California cities and counties determined that environmental impact reviews are required, on average, for only one in 20 projects.

The report also found that for large businesses the primary problem with CEQA is uncertainty, not cost. For smaller businesses and start-ups, the critical issue is the multiplicity of permits and reviews. On the whole, only 10 percent of the reviews are problematic, with the vast majority proceeding without conflict, the report said.

The report was written by John Landis, associate professor of city and regional planning at Berkeley; Robert Olshansky, assistant professor of city planning at the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana; Rolf Pendall, assistant professor of community planning at the University of Rhode Island; and William Huang, a doctoral candidate in city and regional planning at Berkeley.


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