Assembly Bill 2447 (Reyes, 2018), the Vulnerable Communities Inclusion Act, sought to ensure that disadvantaged community residents received adequate notice and had opportunities to provide input on CEQA-related projects that could impact their health, housing, and neighborhood quality. Far too often, permitting decisions take place without community input, especially from populations that would bear the brunt of those decisions. Existing legal requirements to include EJ communities in decision-making processes are limited and often wholly ineffective.
The failure to incorporate the voices of the most impacted communities has real-life impacts. In 2017, the city of Fresno approved a 2.1 millionsquare- foot warehouse that would generate approximately 6,250 truck and car trips daily.62 The mitigated negative declaration (MND)i for the project determined that the project would not produce significant impacts. However, the project site was located next to homes and an elementary school that was predominantly Southeast Asian and Latino students (90 percent of whom received free or reduced-priced lunches), and was ranked as one of the highest polluted communities according to CalEnviroScreen. Moreover, the neighborhood was already impacted by two industrial businesses: an Amazon warehouse whose construction-related dust coated residents’ homes and cars and triggered allergic and asthmatic symptoms, and an Ulta Beauty distribution center. Despite these factors, the project did little to mitigate the impacts on surrounding neighborhoods, and local residents were not notified of the project. Instead, they were alerted to the project through a local news story.
Given the makeup of the community and the potential negative impacts that would occur should the project move forward, Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability (LCJA) got involved by making sure that residents were notified of the proposed development and their rights under CEQA. Exhausting administrative steps, LCJA and Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP filed a lawsuit63 on behalf of the resident group that formed in February 2018. The causes of actions included violating CEQA and General Plan inconsistency. The California Attorney General’s Office also intervened to support their cause. Finally, tremendous resident advocacy led the developer to rescind its development permit approval and the city’s adoption of the MND in January 2019.
While South Fresno residents succeeded in fending off the monstrous warehouse project, many communities are not informed of proposed projects until it is too late to engage. In order to ensure that input from EJ communities are considered in decisions, EJ advocates from across California came together to advocate for AB 2447, which would require notice and public outreach for developments that are likely to cause negative health and environmental impacts in disadvantaged communities. The bill also required that notice was provided in the most commonly spoken local languages to adequately inform and give communities an opportunity to comment on proposed development.
The bill successfully passed through the Legislature despite opposition from special interest groups and local control proponents. When it came time for Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. to sign or veto the bill in 2018, however, he decided to return the bill without his signature. His veto message stated in part, “Land use is quintessentially a local matter. I believe that the notice and meeting requirements, as outlined in this bill, are too prescriptive. Disadvantaged communities are entitled to clear and adequate notice, but zones of notice and the definition of projects subject to the requirements should be flexibly defined to reflect the vast diversity of our state.”64
Gov. Brown’s comments unfortunately reflect the prioritization of local control over robust statewide protections that are intended to prioritize the needs and health of EJ communities, who are the most impacted by environmentally burdensome projects.