SACRAMENTO(AP) — A coalition of business, housing and local government leaders is warning California legislative leaders that a plan to rewrite the state's landmark environmental law could lead to more lawsuits and make it harder to approve responsible projects — the opposite of what lawmakers hope to achieve with the overhaul.
The group outlined its concerns to Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, in a letter obtained by The Associated Press. The group includes powerful organizations such as the California Chamber of Commerce, the Southern California Association of Governments, and the California Association of Realtors.
The coalition is among many environmental, business and labor groups that have been privately working with the Democratic Senate leader to reform the four-decade-old California Environmental Quality Act. Critics say the law, which was intended to protect the state's air and water, has been abused to block projects and gain costly concessions from developers.
Steinberg's legislation, SB731, aims to cut the number of lawsuits and the resulting delays in construction that can drag on for years when opponents object to a project.
It would create statewide standards for noise and traffic issues involving urban development projects, allowing projects that meet those standards to be protected from lawsuits based on those issues. A project's aesthetics also could not be used as grounds for suing under the environmental law.
The bill also seeks to speed up administrative procedures stemming from lawsuits and directs the attorney general to track court filings related to the environmental statute.
In the letter sent to Steinberg on Thursday, the CEQA Working Group wrote that the measure as drafted would create new requirements that will lead to meritless lawsuits against projects that otherwise comply with stringent state and local environmental laws.
"Unfortunately, as drafted, SB731 would not advance true CEQA reform and, in fact, could make approval of worthy and responsible projects even more difficult," the leaders of several dozen groups wrote.
Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for Steinberg, said Monday that he could not immediately comment on the concerns outlined in the letter. He said the Senate leader is continuing to work with interest groups to address concerns and craft a final version of the bill.
"The pro tem is still optimistic that we'll be able get this done this year," he said.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has supported changing the environmental law, though he has expressed doubts about whether the reforms could be completed this year. Many environmental groups and labor unions strongly support the existing law and argue that the tough rules are necessary to safeguard the state's natural resources.
Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said he appreciated Steinberg's efforts to find consensus but insisted the current version of the legislation was not acceptable.
The proposal "does not make the improvements that we were looking for and in some cases makes CEQA even more likely to be abused," said Toebben, who serves as co-chairman of the CEQA Working Group.
Among the group's concerns are provisions to create statewide standards for noise levels and handling parking issues. The group says it is impractical to address those issues on a statewide basis and could discourage development.
It also is concerned an optional procedure intended to speed up the legal process would actually encourage lawsuits by putting the significant cost of preparing the case record on agencies or developers, giving potential plaintiffs little to lose in filing suit.
Other sections of the proposed overhaul provide little or no benefits over current rules, according to the coalition.
The group says it would like further changes that would prevent lawsuits and delays for renewable energy projects and those that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Steinberg has said he also aims to streamline approval for such projects.
The letter also calls for disclosure of any parties that help pay for a lawsuit filed under the environmental quality law.
Steinberg's legislation passed the Senate in May. It is before the Assembly Local Government Committee, where it could be taken up when lawmakers return to session next month.