WHO CAN YOU TRUST?—(Editor’s note: This open letter was intended for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Jimmy Gomez. It deals with critical city planning issues and the ongoing matter of trust and transparency. We felt it was important for you to see this letter.) Photo above: LA’s ongoing air quality crisis.
This letter begins with a sigh.
A large, loud sigh that implies disappointment. The kind of sigh that follows the news that a friend, someone you expected to be on your side, somebody who always had your back, does something disappointing and inexcusable.
It's also the kind of sigh that says "Here we go again."
In the last few weeks, one of the most important environmental laws for many Californians, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), has been under attack at the legislature--again. That law requires developers to honestly disclose the environmental impacts of proposed development projects.
Some developers, including public agencies that build roads, clean up toxic waste, or plan the future, view CEQA as an inconvenience.
Honestly, they're right. It's inconvenient to tell the people who live near a freeway or the site of a new high rise exactly how much pollution that freeway or high rise might create or attract. It's inconvenient to then suggest and put into place measures to make sure that pollution from that road or building is reduced or mitigated.
Honesty and responsibility that take into account that other people share the commons are simply inconvenient.
It would be a much easier world if there was nobody else who mattered and each developer or city government could just build whatever at a whim. Much easier, that is, for the builder.
It wouldn't be much easier for the rest of us, the ones who have to breathe the air near the freeway or walk on the sidewalk near the giant parking garage attached to the high rise. It would be anarchy--polluted anarchy, at that.
And that's why Sierra Club California has been standing guard to protect CEQA from being weakened ever since we were formed. We do it for the rest of us, the Californians who won't rake in the profits or get the annual bonus or job promotion for pushing through a project as fast as possible. We do it for the Californians who have to live with the consequences of the project's impacts on air, water, traffic, walkability, noise, open space, natural areas, and wildlife.
A few weeks ago, the governor attempted to attach a CEQA exemption to funding for toxics cleanup at an abandoned lead battery smelter plant in Southern California. Environmental justice groups, local community groups, and statewide environmental groups (including Sierra Club California) pushed back. The governor (at least for now) backed down. The proposal for the money is moving forward without the CEQA exemption.
Score one for the public good.
Then came another assault on CEQA from the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti. This latest assault is carried in a bill authored by Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez.
The bill, Assembly Bill 2356, is the sort of legislation that takes a small flock of attorneys who are CEQA experts to fully understand. Fortunately, there is just such a flock, including Sierra Club California staff and volunteers.
In a nutshell, AB 2356 would change the CEQA law in a way that would allow a city like Los Angeles to let infill planning escape the honest scrutiny and disclosure now required by CEQA.
The result would likely be more pollution without mitigation. It would also counter at least one key court decision that affirmed that CEQA disclosures are important to protect the environment and public health.
We are opposing AB 2356--which is no surprise, really, given our history and mission to protect the environment.
What is a surprise is that this bad bill is coming from our friends.
Eric Garcetti ran for mayor on a platform that promised environmental protection and sensitivity to the need to rein in pollution, including climate pollution.
Jimmy Gomez was once on staff of two of the most environmentally progressive elected officials in Los Angeles County, Mike Feuer and Hilda Solis. He has had good scores on our annual legislative report card on environmental votes.
The bill's proponents argue that the changes in it are needed to achieve a greater good: higher density development that will make for more walkable cities that, in the end, should reduce long-term pollution.
We generally like denser urban development. But why do we have to give up solid, open environmental impact reporting and mitigation to get it?
In the last several years, legislators and the governor have tried to justify their legislative efforts to weaken CEQA by claiming the weakening is needed to achieve some other environmental good. Former Assembly Speaker John Perez and former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg were particularly fond of ending the legislative session with such bills.
We have never bought the argument that CEQA needs to be sacrificed to achieve environmental progress. Californians deserve honest disclosure and analysis and environmentally better developments. Without the first, we're not persuaded it's likely or possible to consistently get the second.
So when we see another bill from our friends that is presented as an improvement rather than as the attack on public disclosure that it is, we get to work and try to kill the bill.
And, with heavy disappointment, we sigh.
We try not to roll our eyes. But we sigh.
(Kathryn Phillips is Director at the Sierra Club of California. Our thanks to Bob Blue for making us aware of this important piece.)