In Moreno Valley, profit vs. pollution

If there was ever a project that required the scrutiny and public protections of the California Environmental Quality Act, it’s the World Logistics Center. Sadly, the massive warehouse complex in Moreno Valley, which could snarl traffic and create as much smog as a major oil refinery, may not get them.

Last month the Moreno Valley City Council approved the project even though the environmental impact report required no meaningful highway improvements or pollution controls. Then, as opponents prepared to file CEQA lawsuits to block the project, the developer launched a petition drive to put the project on the ballot and bypass CEQA altogether.

The World Logistics Center isn’t the first project to use the ballot to try to evade the state’s landmark environmental law. Developers of proposed football stadiums in Inglewood and Carson played the same game earlier this year, filing initiatives that were ultimately approved by City Council members rather than voters. But the Moreno Valley project could become the most egregious example yet of this loophole.

Even amid a building boom of warehouses and distributions centers in the Inland Empire to handle cargo from the busy ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, no project matches the size and potential impact of the World Logistics Center. A 40-million-square-foot facility big enough to hold 700 football fields, it would draw 69,000 vehicle trips — entrances and exits — daily to an already congested network of roads and highways. That total would include 14,000 daily trips by diesel trucks, which would generate nearly 2 tons of smog-forming emissions in an area with the nation’s worst air pollution.

In short, the World Logistics Center could dramatically affect public health and the quality of life in the region. It’s exactly the kind of project for which the landmark environmental law is so critical.

CEQA mandates an in-depth, honest assessment of a project’s environmental impacts, as well as requiring the developer to reduce those impacts. But air-quality regulators, traffic engineers and community groups complain that city officials approved a deeply flawed environmental impact report, despite repeated warnings that it downplayed the cancer risk from diesel exhaust, rejected reasonable truck pollution controls that are becoming the norm in the cargo industry, and absolved the developer from having to improve the roads.

In a rare move, three government agencies — the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Riverside County and the Riverside County Transportation Commission — all filed lawsuits against Moreno Valley to stop the project until the city requires the developer to address air pollution and traffic congestion. Environmental and community groups piled on with four additional CEQA lawsuits.

Faced with seven lawsuits and an uphill battle in court, developer Iddo Benzeevi reversed course. His company, Highland Fairview, is backing ballot initiatives to repeal the City Council’s approvals of his project and replace them with almost identical ordinances that would have the same effect. Why? Because ballot initiatives are exempt from CEQA, so the lawsuits would become moot if the initiatives succeed.

What’s worse, under a state Supreme Court ruling last year, Benzeevi doesn’t even need to convince the voters on election day. Once he collects the required signatures to qualify for the ballot, the City Council can adopt the initiatives outright. These are the same City Council members whose elections Benzeevi’s company spent $600,000 trying to influence last fall and who blessed his project last month. No more pesky lawsuits. No vote of the public. No accountability.

Critics complain that CEQA has become too cumbersome and prone to abuse by competitors and special-interest groups, which can tie up projects in court for years in an effort to extract concessions or kill them altogether. We agree that CEQA needs reform, but the World Logistics Center case demonstrates the value of a law designed to protect Californians from irresponsible development. As long as deep-pocketed developers can use the ballot and political allies to circumvent environmental laws, no community is safe. It’s time for lawmakers to close this loophole.

Published by: LA Times

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