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Bill Seeks Exemptions To Calif. Environmental Quality Act

Fracas Over San Diego Fireworks Show Prompts Legislation

A coalition of San Diego-based organizations Friday backed state legislation which would exempt certain special events from needing environmental reviews.

The bill, SB 973, introduced by Democratic Senator Juan Vargas and co-sponsored by Republican Assemblyman Martin Garrick, would exempt events of a limited duration from provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The events defined in the bill include recreational tournaments, sporting events, youth tournaments, racing or walking events, fireworks displays, holiday celebrations, concerts, military appreciation events, block parties, weddings, job fairs, festivals and parades, street fairs, beaches and neighborhood cleanups, farmers' markets and art markets.

Environmentalists sued the city last year over the issuance of permits for fireworks shows, particularly a July 4 display at La Jolla Cove.

Attorney Marco Gonzalez with the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation prevailed in his argument that the city failed to follow its own written policy to require environmental reviews before handing out such permits. Organizers of the La Jolla fireworks show contended they didn't have enough money to compile the reports.

The city has since rewritten its policy for issuing special event permits.

Vargas said CEQA wasn't meant to keep "children from enjoying parks and watching fireworks."

But Gonzalez called the proposed legislation a "political stunt by the City of San Diego and its boosters."

"Our challenges to the city of San Diego's La Jolla fireworks show could have been and should have been a very small matter," said Gonzalez. "It should have focused on only one event. When the city recognized it was going to lose that lawsuit, enlarged it to include other events, I think intentionally, because it would make it much harder for the judge to issue a ruling in our favor."

But Gonzalez said the city called into question its entire permitting process rather than just the fireworks show.

"As a result, when the judge issued the ruling it essentially said the city has been violating the law in the way it has been processing permits for all of these types of events," said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said since the ruling, he has offered the City of San Diego several settlement positions that would allow the other events to be issued permits as they have in the past.

"But the city has repeatedly rejected those offers," said Gonzalez. "There are some larger events that happen in the city that do have environmental impacts, but smaller events like birthday parties, picnics and marriages in public parks should not be an issue under our lawsuits or the California Environmental Quality Act."

The coalition supporting the state legislation includes about 70 groups, said Ruben Barrales, president and chief executive of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Barrales said about 500 special events are given permits in San Diego each year.

The city could change its own municipal code to make the review process easier for special event organizers, Gonzalez said.

"All along, all we've said is it's fireworks events that need to be addressed," he said.

Gonzalez said legislators have tried in the past but failed to get laws passed allowing exemptions to the state's environmental quality act.

"There is no other city in California experiencing this problem with their municipal code except the City of San Diego," Gonzalez said. "This is a San Diego-specific problem and the city should not be looking to change state law."

(City News Service contributed to this report)

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