Mike Dunbar

Cannella’s parting shot: Fixing CEQA a life-or-death issue

Outgoing Sen. Anthony Cannella speaking in Merced. In his last speech from the state senate floor, he asked fellow legislators to fix CEQA.
Outgoing Sen. Anthony Cannella speaking in Merced. In his last speech from the state senate floor, he asked fellow legislators to fix CEQA. The Merced Sun-Star

Anthony Cannella used his last two minutes on the California Senate floor to make the case for bringing sanity to CEQA. He considers it nothing less than a matter of life or death.

Since arriving in the Senate eight years ago, ending the misuse of the California Environmental Quality Act has been one of his priorities. Under CEQA’s provisions, just about every project everywhere – including those most would agree are incredibly worthwhile – can be “delayed or slayed,” in the words of one observer.

“It even applies to wildfire prevention,” said Cannella. “We’ve got people dying in these fires, and we still can’t expedite CEQA to get trees down to protect property and lives. These trees are dead, they’re too close together and we haven’t been managing our forests at all. But before you can clear away brush or take down trees … you’ve got to go through the CEQA process.”

Over the past two seasons, fires have cost the state $1 billion this year alone.

CEQA’s mind-boggling roadblocks are “destroying our air, destroying our property and people are dying, but we have to wait years to take these trees down. Instead, we should be changing the regulations.”

But not everyone has to play by CEQA rules, which was Cannella’s point of departure. The process is such an incredible burden, and lawsuits under its rules have become so pervasive and predictable, that those with deep pockets short-circuit the law. They go to the state legislature before they start building to get exemptions. Can’t blame them; without a way around CEQA-inspired lawsuits, their projects don’t get built.

Cannella pointed out 10 different projects the legislature fast-tracked past CEQA – the Golden One Center in Sacramento, the Warriors’ San Francisco arena, three stadiums that were never built, Facebook’s new Menlo Park headquarters and two LA skyscrapers.

But what about someone who wants to build low-income housing? Every city in California needs more of that, but a single CEQA-based lawsuit can hold up such a project for years ... or forever. Where’s their help?

“The problem arises when (CEQA) is weaponized,” said Cannella. “Whether it’s by a competing business, people who don’t want homes built next to them or something else.”

Among projects CEQA’d to death were 20 homes planned by Habitat for Humanity, in-fill projects on weed-choked vacant lots in San Diego, and even repaving existing roads.

Cannella doesn’t want to see the law discarded, just made more equitable. “I like CEQA; it’s a disclosure document ... a valuable tool. I’d never want to change the heart of CEQA.” But the heart of CEQA, passed in 1970, was never meant to beat people into submission or be used to attack much needed civic projects.

Others will have to pick up the fight. Though the legislative session is over, Cannella remains in doing committee work and conducting constituent services. But his voting days are done.

Some things he won’t miss, like driving to Sacramento five times a week. And the hate mail.

For someone who prided himself in working across the aisle, Cannella has been the target of extreme vitriol since casting the deciding vote to increase fees for fuels. They couldn’t care less about $1 billion it means for improved roads and rail service for his district. He anticipated the opposition and the anger, but it’s tough when you have to keep your younger children from looking up Dad on social media.

Cannella drove a hard bargain then followed through with a tough vote. Without it, our region would have gotten nothing but the leftovers.