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Push to overhaul CEQA law divides Democrats

Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 5:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 1, 2013 at 7:48 a.m.

A major political battle is brewing in Sacramento over California's landmark environmental law referred to mainly by its acronym, CEQA, with some powerful Democrats urging an overhaul of the regulations.

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Noreen Evans.

Critics of the 43-year-old legislation say it has become a tool for special interest groups to thwart development, or to coerce project managers into accepting their terms, a process referred to derisively as "greenmail."

"It's a weapon misused by people who want to stop something," said Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange.

Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic Party leaders in both houses of the state Legislature have stated their willingness to change the law. So far they've not released specific details.

State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, has emerged as a major player in the debate as a defender of the status quo, or even adding more provisions to the law that in some instances would be anathema to business interests.

Evans did not return a message Thursday seeking comment.

In an opinion piece the senator co-authored this week for Capitol Weekly, Evans wrote that CEQA "continues to provide essential environmental protections" and has "empowered community members to hold public agencies accountable."

The California Environmental Quality Act was signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan and over the decades has been updated with new regulations.

"The important thing to remember is that CEQA, since its inception, has enabled California to have one of the cleanest, and one of the most restored, environments of any state in the country," said David Keller, a former Petaluma City Council member and current member of the Petaluma River Council.

He said he supports Evans' calls for more transparency in the process, which the senator wrote would include translating documents for people who don't speak English as their first language.

Others appear to be seeking more sweeping changes. Among them is State Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, who has complained that CEQA was used to stop "green projects," such as those involving wind and solar power, when Rubio served as a Kern County supervisor.

Evans, however, stated her opposition to blanket exemptions for such projects in her Capitol Weekly piece, writing that utility-scale renewable energy or high-speed rail can have "significant environmental and public health impacts."

She also recommended adding an "environmental justice component" to the process and raising the standard for overriding considerations that allow environmentally damaging projects to move forward without "sufficient mitigation."

Keller said his understanding of the environmental justice provision is that it would require planners to consider the cumulative and community-wide impacts of proposed development, particularly in poorer areas of the state.

Evans will have a say in any proposed changes to CEQA as a member of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water. She wrote that she also is considering introducing bills aimed at making the changes she has outlined.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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