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Sure, lawsuits over California’s main environmental quality law can force developers to put solar panels on their big-box stores or plant hundreds of trees to offset the greenhouse gasses their projects produce.

But that’s not where the real outrage over the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, comes from. The real trigger: the use of the state’s landmark environmental law as leverage on issues that seem to have nothing to do with the environment.

Here’s what those cases look like: It’s the CEQA lawsuit in San Jose filed by Andy’s BP gas station to keep the Moe’s Stop station across the street from adding three new pumps. It’s the threat of a CEQA lawsuit against a proposed Convention Center expansion from San Diego’s largest labor group, which is later dropped once the contractor agrees to a labor-friendly local hire deal. It’s the CEQA lawsuits over developments in Kensington and Mission Bay spurred by arguments that the projects did lots of bad things, but direct harm to the environment wasn’t one of them.

It’s within this context that some critics of San Diego attorney Cory Briggs direct their venom. Briggs files more CEQA lawsuits than anyone else in the state. The settlements from his cases appear to pay him handsomely. Briggs defends his work by saying those settlements also include crucial provisions that protect the environment.

Sometimes, though, it can be hard to tell how much CEQA lawsuits can actually benefit. It’s also difficult to know how many fights over the law go beyond the perpetual agitation between business and development interests and environmental, labor and neighborhood groups.

Projects in California have become more earth-friendly since the law passed in 1970. But it’s also slowed development. The law requires cities and developers to produce thousands of pages documenting a big project’s effects on air quality, traffic, aesthetics and other things. Some of Briggs’ opponents have accused him of dumping a mountain of objections on a project’s environmental analysis right before it’s set to be approved, leaving little time to deal with any of the issues he’s raised.

Jennifer Hernandez, an attorney with the San Francisco office of Holland & Knight, said most anyone can poke holes in an environmental analysis. She argues the use of the law has strayed from its original purpose. First, she said, it was environmental groups that sued under CEQA. Then came neighborhood groups that saw the law as a tool to stall development. Then came business competitors and labor unions that used the law for their own ends. The latest frequent CEQA user is a group of attorneys who see it as a big payday, Hernandez said.

“It’s very much a formula,” Hernandez said.

Her firm tracked CEQA lawsuits for three years, ending in 2012. Briggs was the No. 1 filer. His firm and the four other top ones sued 125 times over that period, which was roughly 20 percent of the total. Ray Johnson, an attorney in Riverside who is second on the list, is just as contentious as Briggs for using similar tactics.

Politicians of all stripes have argued in recent years for CEQA reforms. Remember those controversial special exemptions that some recent sports stadium projects received through the state Legislature? They gave the stadium developer breaks on complying with CEQA.

Gov. Jerry Brown has called reforming CEQA “the Lord’s work.” State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, tried a few years ago to push an overhaul. He was only able to get minor changes, after becoming frustrated with business, labor and environmental groups’ seeming unwillingness to reach a middle ground.

As it stands, CEQA allows attorneys like Briggs to exist. Whether you think Briggs is a force for good or an enemy of progress probably depends on what you think of CEQA as a whole.

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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