Fresno developer aims to change CEQA laws

February 20, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Business leaders toured areas ready for development in the Valley. They say progress is being stalled by frivolous lawsuits, backed by an environmental law.

A Fresno developer is joining the attack on California's environmental quality laws. Darius Assemi of Granville Homes is blaming the laws for causing delays in one of his downtown projects.

The California Environmental Quality Act requires state and local governments and agencies to identify and mitigate the impacts any building projects have.

Assemi's project in Downtown Fresno has been tied up in court over the city's alleged failure to protect historic properties.

Old houses on L Street were torn down to make way for a proposed apartment complex, to be built by developer Darius Assemi. But a citizens group used the states CEQA laws to challenge the project, and it's been tied up in court for nearly two years. Assemi is frustrated.

"This could be home to 28 families in Downtown Fresno," Assemi said. "It could be part of downtowns revival but it's still on hold until further notice from the courts."

Assemi expressed his frustrations to the media and a group of local residents and business leaders. He is not alone.

California Governor Jerry Brown attacked the laws during his state of the state address. He'd like to smooth construction of the proposed high speed rail project by getting some provisions of the environmental law out of the way.

State Senator Michael Rubio is also pushing legislation to modify CEQA. But the effort is facing opposition from environmental groups.

Environmental law attorney Richard Harriman of Fresno believes the laws make for better development.

Harriman explained, "There are very, very few cases where developments are challenged by opponents under the California Environmental Quality Act, where the process doesn't result in a better project."

Assemi says there are other examples, pointing to the Crossroads Shopping Center Project in Clovis.

City of Clovis Planner Dwight Kroll acknowledges CEQA complaints by citizens and other business interests delayed this project.

Kroll explained, "In running through that process it probably forestalled the approval process on this project by five or six years."

Supporters of CEQA say they give citizens the power to influence development in a positive way. But Assemi believes the laws can discourage progress.

Assemi said, "Unfortunately these kind of lawsuits broadcast to the development community if you come downtown you come at your own peril."

Those seeking to change the state's CEQA laws face a tough battle in the legislature.

Assemi is appealing a loss in court, so his $5 million L Street project faces even longer delays.