When is it okay to suspend environmental protections?

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat just published an article highlighting Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to declare a State wildfire emergency, a declaration that will speed up the process for dozens of fire-prone areas to be cleared of underbrush and thinned of trees, including 36,000 acres in the Ukiah Valley. There will also be some controlled burns (450 acres’ worth in the Ukiah Valley). Hopefully, this will help prevent California wildfires from doing so much damage again this year.

How does declaring an emergency speed things up? In this case, it’s by suspending State procurement and environmental statues, including the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), pronounced “see-qua.” Without these cumbersome statutes, projects can go from being completed in two years to be completed in two months.

Those who know me are well aware of my preference for keeping government oversight and regulation to a minimum in almost every situation, but when it comes to protecting the environment, let’s face it—we’ve got nowhere else to live. Taking care of the planet should be at the top of everyone’s list. So, do I think some legal protections are in order? Yes. However, I do get a little frustrated when the government requires everyone to follow environmental statutes except when those statutes get in the way of governmental priorities. Then the State can arbitrarily suspend them.

While I’m on the subject, I also think legislators shouldn’t be allowed to pass laws from which they are exempt (e.g., members of Congress are not bound by sexual harassment laws and the federal government can use your patents without reimbursing you, if they choose). I also don’t think the IRS should be able to seize assets before someone is found guilty. But I digress.

The truth is, I think it’s wise to suspend CEQA so we can protect the Ukiah Valley from going up in smoke. I know it will anger some environmentalists, but so be it. They can complain from their intact homes that don’t get engulfed in flames thanks to the fast-tracked fire safety measures. If the State suspends CEQA to build sports arenas and football stadiums, surely it’s okay to do so for life-saving purposes.

While I don’t mind the fact that CEQA requires the State to measure the environmental impact of major projects and then mitigate their damage, I don’t like the part that allows any member of the public to sue with zero liability.

For example, if John Q. Public doesn’t like a project because it’ll change his view or add five minutes to his commute, he can sue the developer. In addition to costing that developer hundreds of thousands of dollars, the lawsuit often dramatically increases scrutiny which tends to delay projects (sometimes for years). Projects that can only be successful during a certain window of time can be ruined. So even when developers know their projects are CEQA-compliant, they may not want to move forward, because the possible delays and associated court costs make the project too risky. If it turns out the developer’s project passes muster with CEQA, John Q. Public gets to walk away scot-free. The government has armed environmentalists with an effective weapon, but it uses the wrong ammunition—traffic mitigation and viewshed—instead of dealing with the opponent’s true complaint: the desire for no growth.

I struggle with laws that put all environmental concerns above any human progress. I think environmental laws that slow us down long enough to identify and address the unintended consequences of development make a lot of sense. Seems to me we could find a happy medium, but in this polarized political climate, this might be just wishful thinking.

If you have questions about getting into real estate, please contact me at rselzer@selzerrealty.com or call (707) 462-4000. If you have an idea for a future column, share it with me and if I use it, I’ll send you a $25 gift certificate to Schat’s Bakery. Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.

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