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Support grows for modifying environment law
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — California's four-decade-old environmental protection law has been credited with saving habitat, reducing air pollution and giving residents a voice against deep-pocketed developers.

Yet this year, the California Environmental Quality Act has become a target for sweeping changes in the Legislature. Democrats who typically align with environmental groups are taking seriously the concerns that have long been raised by business leaders.

The champions of change include Gov. Jerry Brown, who has called reforming the law "the Lord's work." Critics say the act is being used well beyond its intended purpose and instead is employed by unions, activist groups and even rival developers to delay or stop projects they don't like, often at great legal expense to developers.

The law has been amended virtually every year since it was signed in 1970, often in the form of "nipping around the edges and carving out exemptions," said Richard Frank, a professor of environmental practice in the law school of the University of California, Davis. This time, he sees momentum building behind larger changes to the law.

"There is a shrinking minority of stakeholders that believe CEQA shouldn't be touched or changed at all," he said.

Modeled after the National Environmental Policy Act, a federal law passed the year before, California's statute requires an initial environmental review for certain projects and a more comprehensive examination if a project is likely to have significant impacts. Supporters say the review process leads to modifications that prevent harmful consequences while giving the public information about potential changes to their neighborhoods and business districts.

Yet the law also can tie up building proposals for years. Reform advocates cite numerous examples of project opponents using the law to halt, rather than fix, development proposals.

Business leaders who have raised those concerns in the past are bolstered this time by groups supporting affordable housing, mass transit and public works.

Their coalition, the CEQA Working Group, highlights an analysis by the San Francisco law firm Holland & Knight, which examined published cases between 1997 and 2012. The review concluded that few challenges targeted industrial projects, while many targeted so-called urban infill projects and other environmentally minded proposals.

"We're not for taking away anyone's right to make sure CEQA is available," said Carl Guardino, the coalition's co-chairman and president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. "We want to make sure it's not being abused."

Supporters of the current law cite a study by the state attorney general's office that examined challenges filed in San Francisco during the final six months of 2011. Of the 5,203 city and county projects reviewed under the environmental law, just 18 resulted in lawsuits, the study found.

Among recent challenges filed under the law is one regarding Cordova Hills, a proposed development east of Sacramento. Developers have defended their plan for 8,000 housing units and commercial development as abiding by strict criteria, but two environmental groups have objected to the project as promoting sprawl in a way that is incompatible with regional planning efforts.

Advocates say the right to express concerns about a development project must be preserved if changes to the law are considered.

"CEQA gives every Californian a right to weigh in," Sarah Rose, chief executive of the California League of Conservation Voters, said during a recent news conference to announce a coalition of the law's supporters. "Those who would like to see California's environmental laws deregulated seem to want to silence that voice."

The debate also is important to city and county officials, who generally favor development but try to balance it against protecting open spaces and the integrity of their communities.

The California State Association of Counties is compiling a set of policy proposals to be released later this spring. It is expected to detail some of the ambiguities faced by the agencies that review development projects to ensure they comply with the law.

Brown has said he wants reasonable changes to a law he has called "a land mine that often blocks things," but he has offered no details on the fixes he would like. Democratic lawmakers in the state Senate are leading the overhaul efforts but also have offered few specifics.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, introduced a bill outlining general areas he intends to address, including easing the process for projects within urban areas and preventing opponents from delaying a project by filing thousands of pages of documents as court deadlines approach.

Detailed bill language could be taken up by the Senate Environmental Quality Committee by late April. The committee's incoming chairman, Sen. Jerry Hill of San Mateo, is working with Steinberg on the proposal.

Recounting how he gasped for air during high school football practices in the Bay Area, he said environmental improvements in the years since then illustrate the law's influence. Still, Hill said he supports finding a way to eliminate the "background noise" of lawsuits that blur the distinction between legitimate environmental concerns and peripheral issues.

"It's created delays and distractions from the environmental regulations that we cherish," he said of the act's evolution.