By Adam Nagourney
SACRAMENTO — A landmark law that has been a symbol of California’s tough environmental philosophy for more than 40 years is facing an unlikely challenge from Democrats, including Gov. Jerry Brown, who contend that regulations protecting the environment have been abused and are thwarting legitimate development.
With the Legislature moving toward adjournment this week, prospects of weakening the law, known as the California Environmental Quality Act, seem stronger than in recent memory, lawmakers said. Brown called rewriting the law “the Lord’s work,” and the effort has won widespread support from newspaper editorial boards.
Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic leader, said Tuesday that he was confident that his proposed changes to the law would win legislative approval this week and be sent to Brown.
That said, the changes Steinberg is championing — which include exempting urban projects from parking and aesthetic reviews, and speeding up the pace of litigation — are considerably short of the broader rollback of environmental reviews sought by business leaders.
And the battle is coming to a head during a time in a legislative session inevitably marked by shifting allegiances and last-minute deal making. Business leaders who once described themselves as hopeful that California would pass major changes to the law are now declaring defeat, abandoning Steinberg and urging lawmakers to vote against his bill.
“This is not threading the needle,” said Carl Guardino, president and chief executive of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a business group. “These are steps backwards.”
The bill is being supported by labor and environmental organizations, two key Democratic constituencies that historically have been fervent supporters of the existing law.
The California Environmental Quality Act requires rigorous reviews of environmental fallout from public and private construction projects, along with detailed plans on how to minimize it. It is repeatedly invoked in lawsuits to block or delay projects.
Steinberg defended his legislation, which he described as “that sweet spot between those who think the statute is irrevocably broken and those who believe there’s nothing wrong with the statute.”
“A statute that is 40 years old and subject to some legitimate complaints about the ways it’s used in some instance is due for a tuneup,” he said.
That California is considering easing environmental regulations is striking. This state has been identified with some of the most aggressive environmental policies in the country, advanced by Democrats and Republicans.
The law in question was signed by Ronald Reagan, a Republican, when he was governor in 1970.
This year, the state Democratic Party adopted a resolution saying it stood “with the labor and environmental community” in opposing changes to the law. But environmental leaders said they were open to some changes.
“I think the Legislature and the governor are hungry to make some changes,” said Ann Notthoff, the California advocacy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “And I think that’s appropriate. But what we keep seeing from the development community is like they want to gut it or nothing. If they could just resist overreaching, we could actually get some meaningful reform done this year.”
The dispute is the latest chapter in a struggle between business and conservationists that has been fought since the environmental movement came of age in the late 1960s. It is taking place in a state with a rich history of conservationists who have battled to protect its vast tracts of mountains, forests and stunning seashore. Nine of the 59 national parks are in California.
Even Democrats who support environmental regulation say the law has invited abuse. It has allowed rival businesses to threaten environmental lawsuits to block projects by competitors. Business leaders say labor unions typically resort to greenmail, threatening to press for repeated environmental review on pending projects as a way of winning favorable contract provisions.
“Frankly, it’s become a blunt instrument to stop projects by so many different people,” said Bob Huff, the Senate Republican leader. “Labor uses it as a way to get project-labor agreements. Lawyers use it a way to send their kids to college and build vacation homes.”
“The original purpose, which was protecting the environment or at least looking at the impacts and mitigating them, has been treated pretty roughshod,” Huff said.
Whatever the law’s shortcomings, many Californians credit it with substantial improvements to the environment, and environmental groups have long resisted efforts to rewrite it.
“I don’t think there is any need to substantially change it,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club of California. Steinberg’s bill would eliminate the requirement that major urban projects be subject to environmental impact studies focusing on parking and view-blocking, two areas that have typically spurred long bouts of litigation.
At the same time, in a move that many proponents of change viewed as a window into the problems of the existing law, Steinberg introduced a separate measure that would exempt from environmental review a sports arena for Sacramento that he has championed as part of a campaign to stop the city’s basketball team, the Kings, from moving to Seattle.
Brown raised concerns about the environmental act as he set the agenda in his State of the State message in January.
“Our approach needs to be based more on consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays,” he said at the time. In pressing for change, Brown invoked the frustration he felt as mayor of Oakland in trying to push through construction projects, only to be stymied by the law.
“I think he genuinely wants to see some reform,” Huff said. “I know he understands the issue, and he is to some degree pushing it along.”
But the governor, whose tenure has been marked by focusing on one or two big battles at a time, has stayed on the sidelines for much of this one. Aides said he might take a more forceful position in the coming days.
Steinberg said that business groups opposing his bill were being unrealistic.
“This is far from a step backwards,” he said. “They could and should in my view declare victory here. But they developed an expectation that was never realistic and not consistent with what I believe the public policy of the state should be.”