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OP-ED: Imagine the Bay Area without CEQA
April 05, 2013, 05:00 AM By E. Clement Shute Jr.

E. Clement Shute Jr.

Paul N. McCloskey Jr.

The two of us remember the challenges that faced our state before 1970, the year the California Environmental Quality Act was enacted. We are disturbed by recent proposals to weaken this landmark legislation, which has served as the cornerstone of California’s environmental protection laws.

While the challenges facing the environment are different today (in fact, they are probably even more difficult), the need for CEQA is as strong as it was in 1970. We cannot forget the reasons that led to our state’s hard-won environmental safeguards. Those reasons still exist.

Before CEQA, monied interests dominated development decisions and California residents had little power to stop the widespread damage to our shared natural resources. Our laws at that time did not allow the public any means of requiring consideration of the environmental harms caused by development.  

For example, in the early 1960s, the San Francisco Bay was being filled at a rate that, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, would have left just a shipping channel by 2020. No laws existed to prevent this environmental travesty. Led by Save the Bay, the Legislature created the Bay Conservation and Development Commission in 1969 to protect the Bay; it enacted CEQA the following year.

In the face of other environmental disasters, such as the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara’s coastal waters, our state leaders in Sacramento were wise to adopt CEQA. It is CEQA — and only CEQA — that empowers communities to stand up to developers. CEQA makes it possible for community groups to hold public agencies accountable to taxpayers and reminds agencies that they exist to serve the public good, not those who bring the biggest checkbook to the table.

CEQA empowers groups and individuals to push for the protection of resources that belong to all of us, resources like clean water and clean air, outdoor recreational areas, livable cities with transit options and accessible urban parks. It is also an important law for public agencies battling development proposals that could harm their citizens but are located in adjacent communities where, without CEQA, they would have no influence over the outcome. 

For 43 years, CEQA has worked to protect the environment of the Bay Area. This landmark environmental law has kept 30 million gallons of sewage overflow annually out of the San Francisco Bay, thanks to mitigation measures associated with the Mission Bay development. It has helped to preserve public access to large swaths of the Berkeley shoreline that had been slated for private development. CEQA limited air pollution that would have resulted from a proposed expansion of the Oakland Airport in 2001, and prevented intensive development of Cullinan Ranch, which contains important tidal marshland along the north Bay.

CEQA continues to protect the Bay Area today. Community members are using the statute’s public disclosure procedures to comment on the controversial “Saltworks” project, which proposes to build up to 12,000 homes along the Redwood City shoreline. This development could destroy important wetland habitat and damage other resources. CEQA is the sole environmental law that allows the public to weigh in on such threats to the Bay.

The notion that our state’s core environmental protections are less important today than they were in 1970 is simply preposterous. With incidents of extreme weather and rising sea levels becoming our reality, now is not the time to weaken the law that protects our shared resources. Now, more than ever, we need powerful environmental protections that keep community voices strong.

E. Clement Shute Jr. is a founding partner of Shute Mihaly & Weinberger LLP and was the assistant attorney general in charge of the Environment and Consumer Protection Section of the California Attorney General’s Office, which was deeply involved in the early interpretation of CEQA. Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey Jr. is a lawyer in private practice who served from 1967 to 1983 in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the San Francisco Peninsula and Silicon Valley. McCloskey was the co-chair of the first Earth Day in 1970 and a co-author of the Endangered Species Act.



Tags: environmental, development, public, resources, california,

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