Noble-sounding CEQA used to fight the scourge of cheap groceries

By Chris Reed
March 31, 2020

The old line about nothing being certain except death and taxes is slightly less solid during the coronavirus recession, as lawmakers look to limit harm to struggling individuals and businesses by putting off when they have to pay their due to the government.

But an old saw about the Golden State — there is nothing more certain than the California Environmental Quality Act  being used to greenmail, bully or block developers — is as true as ever. And a particularly obvious case of misuse of CEQA regulations is now unfolding in Taft, a town of about 9,000 in Kern County, 32 miles south-southwest of Bakersfield.

At a March 2 meeting of the Taft City Council, members took up complaints from the previously unknown “Keep Taft Great” group about a proposal to build a Grocery Outlet on a blighted 3.1-acre lot next to a Dollar General store that opened last year and has done good business. 

The project — proposed by the same Sacramento-based Capital Rivers Commercial real estate firm that built Dollar General — had enjoyed broad, strong support when it won city planners’ unanimous approval. Two camps were particularly outspoken: Residents who wanted cheaper groceries at non-union Grocery Outlet than those available at the unionized Albertsons in town, and civic and business leaders who believed it could help create a new retail shopping hub in a town that badly needs more sales tax revenue.

But the Keep Taft Great group — represented by the Los Angeles-based Finney Arnold law firm — said city approvals were illegal because there had been inadequate studies of the project’s environmental effects. Facing a costly lawsuit if they heeded planning commissioners, Taft City Council members voted unanimously to suspend approval of the project.

Members did so even though some said Keep Taft Great was a phony group backed by Albertsons to stave off competition from a non-union grocer with much cheaper products.

“I find it astounding that we have never heard of or know anybody in Keep Taft Great,” said Mayor Dave Noerr, a videotape of the hearing shows.

The power play was “frivolous and outrageous … despicable,” said Scott Cooper, a local hardware store owner since 1977.

Yet the complaints were dismissed by an attorney for Keep Taft Great. “We are not here to kill this project,” Shaune Arnold said. “We are here to see that this project is built in accordance with public law.”

That law was passed in 1970 by the California Legislature and signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan because of a genuine belief that the scales were out of whack in the development process — that big-money builders with powerful political allies could get environmentally harmful projects built without adequate review.

Fifty years later, with every living California governor backing CEQA reform, it is every bit as evident that the scales are again out of whack — just on the other side. Anyone who can afford a CEQA-versed lawyer — rent-seeking grocers, unions demanding project-labor agreements, NIMBY groups, NIMBY billionaires, you name it — can use CEQA to sharply drive up costs for developers by raising questions about a project’s vetting that can take years to resolve. The CEQA abusers may pretend they’re on the green high ground as they do so — but that’s impossible to square with the study found that 85 percent of CEQA lawsuits were filed by groups which had never filed such suits before. 

And it is hardly a stretch to see a link between CEQA abuse and California’s emergence as America’s most impoverished state. Of course the cost of living will be much higher here when unions and their allies can prevent non-union labor from being used in housing construction and grocery stores.

Despite local coverage that suggested the Taft project had effectively been killed, Scott Touissant, general counsel for Capital Rivers Commercial, wrote in an email that it was still being pursued. After a new application is filed, another public hearing may be held in several weeks — at least if the state emergency rule limiting public gatherings because of the coronavirus threat is no longer in place. 

At that point perhaps Taft planning commissioners or council members can consider how to best help residents dealing with the instant recession caused by national virus quarantines and business shutdowns.

Is it by giving in to a power play whose architects leave no doubt about their insincerity with their trolling use of the Keep Taft Great name for their front group?

Or is it by backing the construction of a grocery store that the Consumers’ Choice nonprofit watchdog group reports has prices 30 percent cheaper than the average of other grocers in the California communities it has surveyed?

In the remote town of Taft, there’s no question as to who holds the high ground.

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Chris Reed is a contributing editor to California Policy Center, and an editorial writer and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisreed99.

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