CFRG Misuse Of CEQA law
The lawsuit by Barbara Farkas and Citizens For Responsible Growth (CFRG) against the Stone Mill Center in Columbia is another example of why this controversial group is quickly becoming well known as the Citizens Responsible for No Growth. Their demand for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is a deliberate misuse of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) law.
CEQA law makes State and local agencies follow very specific steps to list all possible environmental impacts from a development plan. Here where we live, Tuolumne County leads the CEQA process by working closely with the project applicant, involved agencies, and the public. The County reaches out to gather and analyze all the information about a development, then publishes an Initial Study that spells out any potential impacts to the environment (simplified here to “concerns”) from the project.
The Initial Study is the guide for the County to decide which CEQA step to take. There are four options, all of which can be acceptable and are commonly used:
- Exempt – The project is exempt from environmental review, meaning it will have no effect on the environment.
- Negative Declaration – This report is used when a project has no significant (or “bigger”) environmental “concerns.”
- Mitigated Negative Declaration – This option is used when a project could have “bigger concerns,” but they can be reduced to a level that is not serious by mitigation (or “solutions”).
- EIR – This option is required when there are “bigger concerns” that cannot be “solved.”
In the case of the Stone Mill Center, a very thorough 68-page Initial Study was completed by the County. Its conclusion was that an EIR was not necessary, so a Mitigated Negative Declaration report was made instead. Simply put, there were solutions for all the bigger environmental concerns from the project, so an EIR was not required. The report and the solutions were published for public review and comment. Public hearings provided a venue for final input. And after thoughtful review of all the facts from the CEQA reports and the public testimony, the development was rightfully unanimously approved by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. The lengthy CEQA environmental review process was fully complete and satisfied.
Then along came the CFRG lawsuit. The Tuolumne County Business Council is labeling the lawsuit frivolous. It’s well known that opposition groups like CFRG commonly file lawsuits demanding EIRs as a simple tactic to prevent development. The size of a project, or the amount of opposition to it, or the number of “bigger concerns” does not decide whether an EIR is needed. Rather, when the “bigger concerns” can’t be “solved,” that’s the time for an EIR, according to CEQA law. It is very common, and lawful, for projects to use the other CEQA steps instead, and that doesn’t mean any environmental law is being skirted. The intentional purpose of groups like CFRG is to force unnecessary EIRs, which is expensive and time-consuming, knowing that this will increase a project’s legal and development costs, and ultimately can kill a project.
Legal abuse of CEQA is part of why our State and County must balance their budgets with layoffs and reduction in services. Lawsuits, like CFRG’s, artificially inflate housing costs and block jobs, widening the financial gap for young mothers, families, and seniors. Only a very small percentage of the County close to infrastructure and transportation remains available for economic development. Well planned projects like the Stone Mill Center, with a much-needed Prompt Care, are so important to meet the needs of our residents.
We suggest CFRG members take a proactive and positive role in planning, instead of just continuing to object and obstruct. All CEQA law was properly followed in the Stone Mill Center project. Join us in supporting our community by encouraging Ms. Farkas and her small group to drop their frivolous lawsuit!