Misuse of Environmental Laws Betrays Their Intent

How laws written to protect natural resources and biodiversity are being reinterpreted by NIMBY groups to block development.

1 minute read

October 24, 2023, 11:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


"Environmentall sensitive area" sign on rustic wooden fence with tall green grass in background.

nickjene / Adobe Stock

In a commentary for Governing, Alan Ehrenhalt describes how U.S.  environmental review laws are being ‘weaponized’ by groups intent on stopping new development.

Although the intent of these laws is to prevent environmental degradation and preserve natural resources for the future, laws like the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA), the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and others modeled on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), have become a tool for preventing the construction of new housing, transit lines, and other development.

Ehrenhalt provides examples from Berkeley, California and Minneapolis, Minnesota, where lawsuits relying on state environmental laws are delayying student housing projects and a massive rezoning effort, respectively. For Ehrenhalt, these cases raise “important questions about the dangers of loosely written statutes, and about the temptation of the courts to bend those statutes any way they choose.”

Ehrenhalt suggests looking to the doctrine of “original intent,” writing, “If a law was written for the express purpose of protecting wetlands and wildlife, it should not be twisted into a condemnation of urban zoning reform.”

Monday, October 23, 2023 in Governing

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