California’s Experience with Frivolous Environmental Lawsuits

Have the chickens come home to roost in California, of all places? That’s what this article from The New York Times seems to be implying:

Environmentalists in this greenest of places call the California Environmental Quality Act the state’s most powerful environmental protection, a model for the nation credited with preserving lush wetlands and keeping condominiums off the slopes of the Sierra Nevada.

But the landmark law passed in 1970 has also been increasingly abused, opening the door to lawsuits — sometimes brought by business competitors or for reasons unrelated to the environment — that, regardless of their merit, can delay even green development projects for years or sometimes kill them completely.

With California still mired in what many consider its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the law, once a source of pride to many Californians and environmentalists across the country, has turned into an agonizing test in the struggle to balance environmental concerns against the need for jobs and economic growth.

One unfortunate result of our legal system in the United States (not just California) is the fact that it is very easy to file frivolous lawsuits that can cause projects to be delayed for a long time. If you click through to the NYT article, you’ll see a prime example of this in the picture caption, which notes: “San Francisco’s plan to paint bicycle lanes was delayed for four years by a lawsuit claiming that they would cause pollution.” It would be hard to find a better example of a mindless lawsuit, as anyone with a small dose of common sense would understand that changing the color of a bike lane will have no perceptible impact on anything, yet lawsuits delayed the project for 4 years. One must also ponder the sanity of the individual or groups who were so concerned with the color a bike lane that they involved themselves in a lawsuit lasting multiple years.

And it is not just used by environmentalists to shut down or delay projects. It’s also used by businessmen to stifle competition from their rivals:

And it is not only big projects that are litigation targets. In San Jose, a gas station has been indefinitely prevented from adding another pump because of a lawsuit filed by the owner of a competing gas station across the street.

Republicans and business advocates have sought for years to weaken the law, describing it as one of the most egregious examples of an overregulated economic climate that has driven so much business from the state

I am gleeful to note that this law seems to be pitting Democratic lawmakers against the environmental lobby, groups that are normally allies.

Thankfully, California seems to be making progress towards dumping this behemoth of a law. California is generally the most enviro-friendly state in the country. Let’s hope the rest of the U.S. learns from their experience and does not travel down this road.


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