The big law firm Holland & Knight has been on a crusade against California’s signature environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), for a while now. I’ve had my tangles with partner Jennifer Hernandez there, who has issued some misleading studies to derail sensible CEQA reform.
Recently, the law firm tried to step up its game to issue a seemingly-comprehensive study of CEQA litigation to prove once and for all how the law is badly misused by NIMBYs and labor unions to stop badly needed projects. Among the chief conclusions, CEQA mostly targets infill projects, as well as transit and renewables.
The problem is, as my UCLA Law colleague Sean Hecht writes in a devastating takedown, the evidence doesn’t support their conclusions.
On infill, the study defines it as anything within incorporated city limits or adjacent to a development in unincorporated area — in other words an absurdly large geographical area that matches nobody’s definition of environmentally beneficial development. Hecht goes in for the kill:
Unsurprisingly, the definition includes projects that virtually no one would recognize as “infill” under any common definition. For example, this Wal-Mart in Milpitas appears to be classified as “infill,” along with several other Wal-Mart projects. So is Chandler Ranch, a new development in suburban Rolling Hills Estates that includes 114 single-family luxury homes plus a new golf course and clubhouse for the Rolling Hills Country Club. Moreover, some “infill” projects clearly do not provide benefits to their communities. The Bradley Landfill site, the subject of Comunidad en Accion v. Los Angeles City Council, is a waste management site in the middle of a poor Latino community. And another “infill” case, City of Irvine v. County of Orange, involved the expansion of a jail, partially on agricultural land, from 1200 inmates to 7,584 inmates. Many of the “infill” projects are industrial facilities, including asphalt and cement plants. The data presented just don’t support the idea that CEQA cases mostly target projects that support environmentally-sound development that is good for communities. The fact that projects challenged under CEQA are mostly located within the geographical boundaries of cities simply doesn’t prove anything.
On transit, Hecht found only a few lawsuits a year in the Holland & Knight dataset related to transit, including one that actually involved a paint and body industrial facility serving transit lines, rather than a transit project (whoops!).
On renewables, over the three-year study period, the report found just five solar projects and two wind projects that were challenged under CEQA. Hardly a damning amount, particularly given the questionable approval in the first place on one of the wind projects.
Hecht’s demo job of the report was badly needed and speaks to the problem of having ideologically motivated industry actors attempt a neutral “study” of something as hot-button as CEQA. In the future, I hope Holland & Knight attorneys stick to representing clients and leave the CEQA analysis to people who don’t have an axe to grind.