On September 27, 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 292 and Assembly Bill 900, both of which are aimed at expediting, or “fast-tracking,” the litigation of lawsuits brought under the California Environmental Quality Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 (“CEQA”). SB292 is basically an earmark that will “fast-track” CEQA challenges to the Farmer’s Field National Football League Stadium proposed for downtown Los Angeles, next to the Los Angeles Convention Center and Staples Center, by requiring that such challenges be brought directly in California Courts of Appeals and be heard within 175 days. AB900 reaches more widely, “fast-tracking” all projects costing $100 million or more.
The stated intentions of the Bills’ sponsors are, on their faces, noble ones — to provide more job opportunities, and spur increased spending and attendant tax revenue for the State, matters which seem urgent in light of the State of California’s economy. The problems raised by the Bills are less immediate, but no less important.
It’s fairly obvious that these two Bills drill large holes in CEQA’s blanket of protection of the public from the environmental impacts, both short and long term, of large scale development projects. It’s equally obvious that the Bills were intended to insulate not merely the stadium, but also other specific projects, such as the California High Speed Rail Project, from the usually lengthy CEQA process.
What is less obvious is that the Bills could also “fast-track” every airport improvement and/or expansion project in the State of California. This is because airport improvement projects are extremely costly, often involving reconfiguration of the airfield, including demolition and realignment of runways and taxiways, as well as terminal and parking lot construction. Even a small part of these potential activities could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. So far so good you may be saying, because that type of major construction adds up to lots of jobs and better transportation.
This is where that nasty law of unintended consequences sneaks in. Along with the “good” of increased employment and capacity comes usually major, and always long term, environmental consequences on large swaths of numerous local communities. Such impacts include increased air pollution, greatly increased noise over the numerous residential communities located around airports, and the ubiquitous traffic impacts on local communities. Unlike the “fast-tracking” of the essentially local stadium project and of surface transportation projects which run in confined, proscribed corridors, airport impacts cover widespread and often unpredictable areas and populations.
It is true that access to the courts has merely been attenuated, not eliminated. But the impact of sending a challenge directly to the Courts of Appeals is draconian. The only path of reconsideration or appeal from a decision of a Court of Appeals is to the California Supreme Court. Because that court only accepts for hearing about 5% of the cases that apply to it, the new legislation effectively gives challengers only one bite at the apple. Thus, the Bills constitute a radical change in a state where Courts of Appeals regularly revised lower court decisions under CEQA.
Finally, and added to the already existing burdens on the Appellate Court system, the 175 day rule (or less than six months) to fully adjudicate a CEQA action further constrains the ability of the Appellate Courts, used to dealing with legal questions, to try what are usually highly fact specific and sometimes scientifically complex environmental issues.
In short, SB292 and AB900 are bad precedent, even if for good reasons. Special interest legislation is never desirable (although frighteningly common), and special interest legislation, the global consequences of which have not been fully considered, is even less desirable. It can only be hoped that environmental groups such as the National Resources Defense Council, which supported both Bills, will be just a quick to aide citizens affected by the legislation to adjust to their new legal reality.