S. E. Williams
In 2014, the California Supreme Court ruled in a way that quietly created what many now consider the most effective legal/legislative tool in a generation for use by developers or environmentalists, each for their own partisan needs.
Any developer who desires to evade a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review and work against efforts by environmentalists, public health advocates, other agencies and/or municipalities to create a particular development in a particular area; or conversely, environmentalists, health advocates, citizens, etc., who desire to frustrate development efforts, can all embrace this ruling and work it to their advantage in certain instances.
The introduction of the state’s 2014 Supreme Court ruling into the ongoing World Logistics Center debate allegedly by the project’s developer, Iddo Benzeevi, has the potential to deal a death blow to the project’s opposition.
To date, a plethora of state and local government agencies in addition to a variety of environmental organizations have filed suit against the project. Plaintiffs in the various suits include the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Coalition for Clean Air and San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, Riverside County Board of Supervisors, South Coast Air Quality Management District, County of Riverside and the Transportation Commission among others.
It appears all the legal dollars and efforts on the part of these organizations may soon prove to be for naught as a 2013 California Supreme Court ruling appears tailor made to assure their failure in this scenario.
In an exclusive exchange with the VOICE, Moreno Valley City Councilmember George Price confirmed Benzeevi is already circulating petitions calling for the project’s implementation.
The 2013 Supreme Court ruling would allow the Moreno Valley City Council to rescind its previous approval of the project and a request could be made for the council to approve the citizens’ initiative instead without placing it on the ballot and allowing all Moreno Valley voters to weigh in.
For the initiative to be legally considered it must secure signatures from at least 15 percent of Moreno Valley’s registered voters. If this comes to fruition, it is assumed the same three council members who approved the project initially would vote in favor of it the second time around. Next, also according to the Supreme Court ruling, all of the CEQA lawsuits against the project would become null and void and there would be no future grounds for any further CEQA related lawsuits.
Voila! The project moves forward without the impediment of CEQA lawsuits; the approval of a mere 15 percent of the city’s registered voters; and, the probable re-approval of three city council members whose votes were allegedly purchased by way of campaign funding and/or other fiscal contributions provided by the developer. As of October 15, according to the Riverside County Registrar of Voters, there were 73,056 registered voters in the City of Moreno Valley—15 percent is equivalent to 10,958 voters.
The 2014 Supreme Court case in question is Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. The Superior Court of Tuolumne County (Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., et al., Real Parties In Interest (2014) 59 Cal.4th 1029, Case No. S207173.) The case involved an existing Walmart that circulated a petition, gathered 20 percent voter signatures and as a result, the expansion was approved by the council without a Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) as it appeared the expansion met the requirements established under the stores initial application. However, a suit was filed against the council for failing to fully facilitate an EIR process. The Supreme Court reversed a Fifth District Court of Appeal’s judgment in this case that held a city may not adopt a voter-sponsored initiative with potential environmental impacts unless it conducts a CEQA analysis.
Here is the Supreme Court rationale that may directly impact the future of the World Logistics Center. Firstly, a 1911 California Constitutional amendment gives the people the powers of initiative and referendum and established an indirect process for city and council initiatives In other words such initiatives can only be submitted to voters if they have not been enacted by the local legislative body. This is why Benzeevi might ask the Moreno Valley City Council to withdraw its approval of the World Logistics Center Project while he circulates an initiative for approval among the voters. He only needs 15 percent of registered voters to sign the initiative in order to take it to the council for approval. This is where more of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling comes into play.
CEQA is not required when a legislative body directly adopts a citizen petition. According to the court, to require CEQA review under these circumstances would be “contrary to the statutory language and legislative history pertaining to voter initiatives and policy considerations do not require a different result.”
Also, applicable sections of the state’s Election Code (9214) does not mention CEQA and as a result, to require a CEQA review would be inconsistent with and nullify its provisions that allow direct adoption. In addition, time constraints in the CEQA public review and comment period, as well as agency consideration of environmental impacts would be impossible to meet and the required deadlines are mandatory. It would also nullify its provisions allowing direct adoption in providing for preparation and consideration of an abbreviated report.
In its 2014 ruling, the Supreme Court left little room for accusations of legislative error or omission as it assumed the legislature is fully aware of all laws in existence when it passes or amends any statute and when CEQA was enacted in the 1970s the statutory procedures for enacting voter initiatives had been in place for sixty years. If it had intended to change the law it would have; but, it did not.
Finally, the Supreme Court reviewed the legislative history and determined, “ordinances enacted by initiative, either directly or by election, are not subject to CEQA review,” highlighting concerns about a party’s use of the process whether to evade CEQA review or conversely to thwart development are most appropriately addressed to the legislature. In the meantime, the court declared, “the process itself is neutral.”
To this end and despite the cautious optimism aimed at defeating the World Logistics Center project in the courts, there is a feeling among many fighting against it that the 2014 Supreme Court ruling has sucked a good amount of oxygen from efforts to stop the development.
The Supreme Court, for its part, was fully cognizant of the possibility that interested parties may attempt to use this initiative to advance their own aims and called it, “part of the democratic process”.
Like Moreno Valley’s World Logistics Center, other epic and predictable development battles often occur in working class communities whose citizens at times feel compelled to support such developments despite environmental and health implications because they are desperate for the promised employment opportunities.
Such quests for viable employment opportunities that are often promised by developers frequently fall short of expectations. In addition, sometimes the jobs that do materialize are part time, low-waged positions usually without benefits or opportunities for advancement. Maybe it is because hope does spring eternal, citizens often remain hopefully optimistic with each proposed development, employment circumstances will be different. This includes the estimated 20,000 employment opportunities used to sway the public on the World Logistics Center project. However, most familiar with the promises of the project’s developer, Benzeevi, recall job claims he made in relation to the Sketchers project he also facilitated—never fully materialized.
The 2014 California Supreme Court ruling reminded everyone there is a clearly defined legislative process for voters to overturn any ordinance adopted against the majority will of the people. The court, however, failed to mention the legislative process can be both lengthy and arduous.
The VOICE will continue to follow this story.