Developers in Fresno County will soon be able to hire firms of their own choosing to study the environmental impacts of proposed projects.
The Board of Supervisors approved the new policy Tuesday on a 5-0 vote, saying that it will speed up the development process, and help to create jobs.
Until now, developers would pay the county for the preparation of an environmental impact report (EIR). The county would then issue a "request for proposal" to environmental consulting companies, a selection process that can take nearly half a year to complete.
Under the new pilot project approved Tuesday, the county will prepare a list of environmental consulting firms. Developers who wish to select their own firm may do so, with the approval of county planning staff and the Board of Supervisors. The project will last for at least the next year.
Advocates, including Supervisor Phil Larson say that the new system will save developers five to six months on their projects by bypassing the county's selection process.
"What this is really doing is speeding up the process, basically. I don't think we've changed a whole lot here. We're still reviewing the EIR, we're still considering all of the ramifications, environmental, water, whatever we want to consider, traffic, people, numbers. We're considering that. But by allowing the individuals to select their consultants from the list that you provide, we speed the process up," said Supervisor Phil Larson.
Critics say a consultant working for a developer might be more willing to prepare an environmental impact report that is favorable to a project than one where the consultant is working for a neutral party like the county.
Gary Lasky of the Sierra Club's Tehipite Chapter told the board that the new arrangement could backfire, and result in more lawsuits, if people suspect that the studies are biased towards developers.
"The public is entitled to participate in the EIR process and have their concerns addressed by a neutral party like the county government. They want it to be done by somebody that they trust. Even if it's a perfect EIR, if it's well intentioned and well written, if it comes from a not-neutral party, the public will be concerned about this," said Lasky.
But that concern is overblown, according to Supervisor Henry Perea. He said the types of firms that specialize in the work of preparing EIRs have strong reputations.
"I know the public has a concern about that transparency piece, 'well, okay, if the developer now starts hiring their own consultants, there's something wrong with that.' Well, I think we do know the folks who do CEQA reviews, their qualified to do it," said Perea.
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) often requires those who want to build large developments to prepare in-depth environmental impact reports. Those documents can in some cases take years to prepare, and study issues ranging from air and water quality to traffic and noise pollution.
In a separate but related move, the Board of Supervisors delayed a vote on a proposal to allow Fresno-based developer Granville Homes to move ahead with a plan to hire a consultant to conduct and EIR on the firm's proposal for a private medical school near Millerton Lake.