Community Editorial: Activists Abuse Environmental Laws

Trabuco Canyon (p)

For an opposing view, click here.

The flap and now lawsuit over 65 new homes in Trabuco Canyon illustrates how the goals of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) have been tortured and twisted over time.

What once was a well-intentioned law to make sure the environmental impacts of a development are fully understood and properly considered has been perverted into a device to let anti-growth and anti-property rights factions delay, delay and delay reasonable, legal development proposals.

In the Trabuco Canyon development, no-growthers have filed a lawsuit using the provisions of the CEQA to attempt to overturn the approval granted for 65 homes along Santiago Canyon just north of Cook's Corner on property zoned for 65 units for decades.

The property owner is simply exercising his property rights.

However the anti-growth, anti-property rights people did not want any development and have now filed a CEQA lawsuit because they did not get their way during the normal land use approval process.

The court suit will not ask the judge to overturn the project because it is unfair to their beliefs or that they don't want any new neighbors or because they view the project as governmental fiat by the Board of Supervisors.

They have now sued on minor little technicalities that CEQA has not complied with, thereby twisting the intent of CEQA to achieve their ends, which is to stop the project and bankrupt the owners, notwithstanding that the project has paid taxes since taxes were first levied in Orange County.

I often quote from a Jan. 24, 2003, article in the Orange County Register about the mobile homeowners not wanting to abandon their units on state-leased property in El Morro, wherein Elisabeth Brown, president of the Laguna Greenbelt said, "They [the unit owners] have a huge amount of nerve proposing land use on land they don't own."

This is the essence and the intent of the aforementioned lawsuit.

The device used to delay — and sometimes kill — legal development proposals is CEQA.

The Lake Tahoe decision of the 1970s and the resultant CEQA law was originally a good idea, I hate to admit now some 40 years later. The basic tenant was that before a project on one piece of land moves forward in a vacuum, the impacts of that project on the environment and the surrounding properties should be studied, quantified and mitigated to the extent reasonably possible. A simple concept to achieve the greater good.

Today, a CEQA lawsuit is filed to stop the project and to cripple the owner. The most disheartening outcome for CEQA litigants is when the judge orders their concerns remedied and the project is allowed to proceed.

They want to kill the project and not to achieve compromise.

However, now, 40 years later, environmentalists, lawyers, courts and legislators have mangled the CEQA into a cottage industry of CEQA consultants and expert CEQA lawyers that spend their time figuring out ways to either circumvent the law or use CEQA to stop projects because they don't like them.

Ironically, in the end the project really only gets delayed, the property owners lose money, the consultants make money and the lawyers make money.

In defense of this statement I cite the Orange County transportation corridors. These projects were sued to be stopped, and drivers sat on the clogged roads for a while. When these projects cleared the courts, traffic began to flow. Today, no one remembers the flap, and even the corridor fighters use transponders to take advantage of the quicker trips.

Another good example is the residential project in and around the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach.

It was approved in the early 1970's and was fought and litigated for the purpose of stopping it cold for 30-plus years. The project is now approved and being constructed. Perhaps the project is more environmentally sensitive, but the fight over the project was always to stop it, utilizing CEQA, not improve it.

It would be my hope all diehard litigants would be honest about the veracity this statement.

So after a long court battle where the CEQA consultants will have cashed in on the 65-unit proposal, where the CEQA lawyers will have handsomely profited, in the end, someday, the project will be built and the losers will be the litigants and the land owner.

Is this a great state or what?

Lyle Overby is one of Orange County's best known political consultants and serves on the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board. Overby was retained by Rutter Development in this case although he is no longer retained by them and is writing as an individual.

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