Industry Market Trends

Stop, Or I'll Demand an Environmental Impact Study!

Apr 06, 2012

If you oppose a Wal-Mart, housing development or pretty much anything being built, and you've exhausted all legal and fair means of fighting it, but you're convinced that you know what's better for everybody else, there is something you can do that will, if not kill the construction and the jobs and the benefits other people would derive from it, then at least delay it and cost the builder more, jacking up the costs to the users and everybody else in the process: Demand an environmental impact study and get a lawyer to file something charging that the building project, or whatever it is you oppose, will damage the environment. Repeat as necessary.

Damn The Facts, Full Speed Ahead!

It's important to ignore the fact that the builder has in almost all certainly already paid for a comprehensive, accurate environmental impact study as part of the process to acquire a building permit in the first place. Simply say that the builder's study is insufficient and that to protect the environment, another one needs to be conducted. And file any objection you can think of.

Oh and if you're a labor union, this is a great tactic to punish those builders who don't want to inflate their own costs by using your overpriced labor. It's one of the finest blackmail tools out there, so learn how to use it properly.

A 2007 study by labor economics policy analyst James Sherk found that environmental impact studies are a wonderful twofer -- those committing the blackmail get to look "concerned" and "caring" about the environment, and journalists can be relied upon to simply swallow and regurgitate one side of the story.

Journalists are dependably useful that way. Don't ever worry about a journalist questioning motive or deeper intent of something that's labeled "pro-environment" if it opposes any sort of construction. Throw it out there and they'll eagerly do your P.R. legwork for you. Journalists save all their questioning and skepticism and crusading zeal for the builders, never for you. They see you and them as being on the same side, and they'll bend over backwards to make you look good.

Labor Unions Love Environmental Impact Studies. Just Love 'Em.

Labor unions are particularly adept at using environmental laws to blackmail developers and builders. As Sherk explains, now that unions have lost their monopoly on labor, they have to resort to other tactics to drum up work for their members to keep the dues flowing into their union coffers. In so doing, they've discovered the value of environmental blackmail.

Here's how it works, according to examples documented by Sherk:

First, it really helps to be in California, although it's effective in other states with similarly anti-development approaches to environmental law, such as New York. In California, the legal system couldn't be more accommodating or inviting to punishing developers via environmental blackmail if it were designed by the Sierra Club itself.

What happens is, a building project is announced. Sherk cites two -- the city of Roseville, Calif., applying for permits to build a new power plant in 2004, and Sutter Health's unveiling a $465 million hospital expansion project in Sacramento. In both cases, using union labor would significantly increase the cost of the project with no discernible improvement in building quality. Naturally, in neither case did the builder choose to enlist union labor as part of the plan.

Do The Math. Sometimes Environmental Blackmail Works.

Knowing it had no way to win the project honestly and fairly, in both cases the union committed environmental blackmail. In Roseville, the union induced a group calling itself California Unions for Reliable Energy to submit "a detailed request" for environmental information about the planned power plant.

The point here is to get loads of information to use as ammunition in filing objection after objection. Whether the objections have any merit is completely beside the point. Construction can't begin while objections are being resolved, according to California's anti-development laws, so as long as you can keep filing, the developer can't complete his project and is losing money.

So the city of Roseville sat down and figured: "OK, let's do the math here. If we fight all the legal roadblocks and get all the extra permits they'll require, at the end of the day we will get them, of course, but that'll cost us $15 million. Hiring union labor will cost $3 million more than non-union labor." So they knuckled under to the union's blackmail tactics and signed a project labor agreement with the union.

And in Sacramento, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which hasn't been able to organize workers at several Sutter Health hospitals, filed a blizzard of objections claiming that despite all the successful approvals, scrutiny from the Sacramento city council, $2 million in environmental impact reports paid for by Sutter Health and more than 30 public meetings over a five-year period -- at none of which did SEIU attend to raise concerns -- the project was committing a number of egregious and serious environmental violations.

Sutter, more power to them, fought the allegations and won, but lost millions and millions of dollars due to union blackmail, money which could have been spent improving care for people at their hospitals, but which was lost due to union pique instead.

The Crux Of The Issue: CEQA

The crux of the issue is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which as a recent report on environmental law noted, "generally requires a governmental agency to prepare an Environmental Impact Report for any project which may have a significant effect on the environment."

It's become an effective anti-development blackmail tool, sharpened by a recent court case, Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley, which found that building a single-family home of about 6,500 square feet didn't qualify for a CEQA categorical exemption even though homes usually do, since "the existence of evidence that the project in question may have a significant environmental effect" is all anybody needs to blackmail the builder with the threat of CEQA-allowed court filings.

Unbelievably, the court explained, "the fact that proposed activity may have an effect on the environment is itself an unusual circumstance" negating the use of a categorical exemption. File away, protesters, it's open season on building.

Anti-development activists can use the law to blackmail other people in a wide range of instances. A local San Diego news station reported in March that a wild turkey hunt organized at the Santa Ysabel East Open Space Preserve to teach young people how to handle firearms safely and get rid of a few of the 20,000 wild turkeys in San Diego County would, in fact, take place, despite the Animal Protection and Rescue League claiming in filings that the event violates the California Environmental Quality Act.

That claim "will be litigated at a later time," the news report noted, adding burdens of time and expense on the hunt organizers purely out of spite, and just to let anybody else know the hassle and expense blackmail that will come with doing something of which the Animal Protection and Rescue League happens not to approve of.

Works For Movies, Turkeys, Makers of Movie Turkeys.

But it's not just turkey hunts that can be attacked using blackmail tactics. According to the Marin Independent Journal, movie producer George Lucas wants to build a film studio complex on a 52-acre parcel known as the Grady Ranch around Marin, but some locals don't want him to. So the local homeowners association is citing "impacts to the habitat and residents" under a California Environmental Quality Act filing to stop the project, instead of using the far more compelling grounds that Lucas hasn't made a good movie since 1983's Return Of The Jedi.

Never mind that local government in 1995 approved a bigger Lucas project on the land, which was never built, and that the currently proposed complex is smaller. The point is that if George Lucas or anybody is building something you don't want built, you can blackmail them with CEQA filings to, if not stop the project, at least make them pay for opposing your will.

A group of concerned California citizens who would like to see the state stop hemorrhaging people and jobs recently met at the University of Redlands in preparation for a statewide economic summit, to call for "better transportation networks, higher college graduation rates and an easing of regulatory burdens" as three ways of improving the dreadful economic climate not only for the Inland Empire, but the state of California itself.

Doug Henton, CEO of San Mateo-based Collaborative Economics, said "some set of amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act to reduce the kind of litigation that can postpone construction" is urgently needed, saying "it's not about destroying the environment, it's about ending delays."

Poor Mr. Henton. He missed the whole point.