Our quality of life here in Orange County can’t be beat, with our clean air, our beautiful vistas and our protected, publicly owned coastal and inland foothills. I think most of us probably take these benefits for granted, but it’s important to acknowledge that we have these benefits in large part because of the protections afforded to us by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Unfortunately, polluting industries and developers are once again pushing to weaken CEQA in the name of the housing crisis. They spuriously claim we need less regulation in order to get more housing built. But, CEQA has already been effectively streamlined in recent years to encourage infill housing in urban areas, close to transit and jobs. In fact, these developers would prefer to build on undeveloped, open space lands, and don’t want to be bothered with environmental regulation. They make more money building single-family homes in sprawl areas – that are often also high fire-risk areas – than they do building affordable infill housing. Never mind that those houses in outlying suburbs cost more and create more traffic, air pollution, and in many cases, fire risk for all of us. State Farm, the insurance giant, recently announced it would no longer insure new homes, in part because of the catastrophic wildfire risk in California.
CEQA serves as a check on these short-sighted, profit-minded plans and makes sure that the long-term effects of development – to public health and safety, the environment, and the climate – are considered and mitigated where possible. The law also allows the public to actively participate in the land use decision making process. Weakening CEQA would silence our voices and pave the way for developers to make big profits at the public’s expense.
The regional non-profit organization, Hills For Everyone, for which I currently serve as Executive Director, and other local groups and residents have applied CEQA quite effectively over the past five decades to hold developers and public agencies accountable for the impacts of their projects. In some cases, projects that would have posed outsized wildfire dangers to new and current residents are stopped altogether. More often, projects move forward, but developers are required to minimize and mitigate potential harms, often by paying for the protection of open space and wildlife habitat.
For example, in the late-1990s, a huge housing project was planned at Coal Canyon, the last known place where wildlife could cross under the 91 Freeway between Chino Hills State Park (CHSP) and the Santa Ana Mountains. Through the CEQA process, a coalition of county residents worked with the developer to protect the wildlife crossing, while facilitating housing to move forward elsewhere. Likewise, in 2005, the ridgelines overlooking the eastern edge of Yorba Linda were donated to CHSP, expanding the footprint of the park, as partial mitigation for the Shapell housing project.
In 2010, Metropolitan Water District needed to build an access road as part of its work to provide clean water to the public, but the road went through CHSP, partially disrupting habitat. The CEQA process led to an agreement whereby the road was built, but funds were also allocated to acquire more walnut woodlands for the park. Both actions benefit Orange County residents.
There are numerous other examples of CEQA being applied to protect natural lands, sometimes with multiple projects contributing to an overall mitigation plan. For example, developers can buy into the Soquel Canyon Mitigation Bank north of CHSP to offset habitat impacts of their projects.
CEQA has also been used in Orange County to require reductions in wildfire risks. In one example, the developers of the Cielo Vista housing project in the hills above Yorba Linda agreed to establish a Fire Safe Council (paid for by the new Homeowners’ Association) and to develop a Fire Management Plan. Though some may think that these common-sense measures should be established for all housing projects in our fire-prone region, developers do not have an incentive to spend the money on them – unless the CEQA process creates that incentive.
Parklands are not an optional luxury to be brushed aside. Green spaces provide all of us with physical and mental health benefits that are needed more than ever in our modern, stressful world – but they do much more than that. Undeveloped natural landscapes serve as wildlife habitat, protecting our region’s biodiversity; they filter our drinking water and the air we breathe; they foster robust populations of pollinators, on which we depend for a majority of our food crops. And, they absorb greenhouse gases and help to slow down climate change.
CEQA is one of the most powerful tools we have to protect our quality of life here in Orange County, by defending existing open space, creating opportunities to preserve additional parklands, and supporting the kind of long-term planning that results in housing that is safe, healthy, and affordable. No other state law affords such public participation in land use matters. Our county would look very different without CEQA! I call upon Assemblymember Phillip Chen, Senator Dave Min, and our county and city elected officials to stand up for CEQA and keep it strong.
As a founder of Chino Hills State Park, Claire Schlotterbeck has been protecting natural lands at the juncture of Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties for over 45 years. She lives in Brea.
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