The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) takes another hit as developers learn to sidestep its debilitative effect on new construction projects.

Developers found a way to skip lengthy environmental reviews by submitting ballot measures to city and county governments. Upon receipt of the ballot measure, the city council decides whether to:

  • approve the project straightaway;
  • hold a special election for voters to approve or deny the project; or
  • request an abbreviated environmental impact report (EIR) prior to choosing one of the above options. [Calif. Elections Code §9214]

Thus, ballot measures submitted by developers can be approved in as little as ten to forty days. By contrast, initiatives wrung through the traditional environmental review process can take several months to generate a decision.

Developers have been able to use ballot measures to defy the CEQA since a 2014 California Supreme Court decision determined direct approval of a ballot measure does not violate the CEQA’s requirement of an environmental review. [Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. Superior Court (2014) 59 C4th 1029]

Battle of the ballots: Moreno Valley

This ballot strategy recently became popular in Moreno Valley, the second most populous city in Riverside County. Incorporated in 1984, the city of Moreno Valley doubled in size from 1970 to its incorporation thanks to significant urbanization in manufacturing and industrial logistics firms.

Enter the World Logistics Center (WLC), a behemoth of a warehouse development spanning 40 million square feet, which was approved in August 2015 after an extensive three-year environmental review process. After its initial approval, nine lawsuits citing violations of the CEQA were filed against the WLC — lawsuits which meant years of intended delays.

However, ballot measures submitted by the developer to the city following the lawsuits led to the city council’s immediate (re)approval of the project, despite not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) protests and two failed referendums.

Opponents of the ballot measure loophole often cite the WLC as a shining, steel example of the potential harm circumventing the CEQA might bring upon cities. Although the city of Moreno Valley anticipates the project’s creation of 20,000 long-term jobs and 13,000 construction jobs, opponents claim the sheer size of the WLC — the largest warehouse development in California history — will cause extreme smog and traffic.

Ultimately, the WLC is just one (albeit large) example of the overwrought tug-of-war game project approval has become in California.

Are ballot measures the solution?

The rising trend in developers’ use of ballots to hasten project approval complements Governor Brown’s recent affordable housing proposal, which seeks to exempt urban infill projects from environmental review under the CEQA.

However, unlike the governor’s proposal, ballot measures suggest a higher risk of sway. Instead of using existing urban land to support housing growth, ballot measures for all types of developments need meet only the minimum required number of petition signatures to force the city council’s hand. Costly special elections aren’t likely to become frequent rebuttals, meaning developers submitting ballot measures have the upper hand.

Additionally, opponents of the practice fear developers might begin greasing palms on city councils to enact immediate approval of balloted projects.

Regardless, ballot measures used to expedite important projects — like housing developments and job-creating business establishments — are key to California’s urban survival, and the businesses that thrive on population density. NIMBY abuse of the CEQA to delay projects which may otherwise have been neatly approved needs to end. California’s outrageous home prices and rental rates are the direct result of the vacuum created by limited and delayed development. Lack of housing forces the tight conglomeration of businesses and skilled employees into expensive hubs inaccessible to the greater, lower-income state workforce.