Environmental legislation and regulations might go the way of the dodo bird–at least temporarily–if some California real estate experts and local officials had their way. The State CEQA and even the federal NEPA regulations are blocking much-needed development to boost the economy, said speakers at ICSC’s Western Conference, held last week in San Diego.

Sustainability standards were among a number of topics discussed by leaders at the Federal, state and local levels at the conference. Key was the effect of all on a still-troubled economy, particularly in California, one of the epicenters of the Great Recession. Even efforts to help have not been as effective as all would have liked.

“We passed a massive stimulus package in February,” saud US Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). “It’s disappointing to note only 24% of it has been authorized to be spent, and the rest is working through the process.”

Not enough of the $81 billion allotted to California is dedicated to infrastructure, said Bill Lockyer, California State Treasurer. And what is dedicated can be delayed for years as it goes through the environmental approval process.

“You can’t do shovel-ready projects if you still have to go through CEQA and NEPA,” said Mark Nuaimi, mayor of Fontana, CA. “Unless we have a moratorium on environmental standards, nothing is going to happen.”

The California Environmental Quality Act, adopted in 1970, requires development projects submit documentation of their potential environmental impact for approval. Originally applying only to public projects, its scope has been expanded to include all large development. The National Environmental Policy Act, passed in 1969, requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision-making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions.

There are precedents for relaxing the processes. When freeways needed to be rebuilt after earthquakes, Nuaimi noted, “we threw out the procedures.” CEQA also was suspended for development surrounding the 1984 Summer Olympic Games held in Los Angeles.

Times have changed. In a December 2008 economic stimulus plan California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed CEQA exemptions on 10 highway projects around the state. The Legislature, however, approached the problem differently, instead proposing a streamlined CEQA process. The result was just one more element to be battled over during a budget stalemate.

“Why not just [use] NEPA or a higher standard,” asked Rex Hime, the session moderator. “This would allow projects to get going.”

Changing anything regarding protecting the environment is easier said than done, said McMorris Rodgers, who served on a House committee to revise NEPA. “I was surprised at the reluctance even to talk about it,” she said. “It’s like the Bible–you don’t change a word. NEPA and ESA [the US Endangered Species Act] are used not only to delay, but to [cancel] projects.”

Nuami, who also is chairman of the Fontana Industrial Development Authority and assistant city manager of nearby Colton, CA, noted his towns “are the poster child of endangered species [restrictions] run amok. The Delhi Sands fly [designated as an endangered species in 1993] killed a hospital that needed to be built.”

The kangaroo rat, another endangered species, also has delayed some development, he said. Yet some projects manage to be approved, he noted ironically. “When high-speed rail comes through Nevada, it will get NEPA clearance,” Nuaimi said. “When it’s a large enough project, it amazingly gets clearance.”

Despite the problems, Lockyer remains hopeful over the long term. The West Coast states are attracting a young population, which will renew prospects when the economy turns. “I’m very optimistic about being on the West Coast,” he said.

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