Environmentalists in this greenest of places call the California Environmental Quality Act the state’s most powerful environmental protection, a model for the nation credited with preserving lush wetlands and keeping condominiums off the slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
But the landmark law passed in 1970 has also been increasingly abused, opening the door to lawsuits — sometimes brought by business competitors or for reasons unrelated to the environment — that, regardless of their merit, can delay even green development projects for years or sometimes kill them completely.
With California still mired in what many consider its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the law, once a source of pride to many Californians and environmentalists across the country, has turned into an agonizing test in the struggle to balance environmental concerns against the need for jobs and economic growth.
“Something is broken,” said Leron Gubler, the president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of jobs could have been saved if not for these lawsuits, as well as new jobs once these projects were completed.”
Mr. Gubler said lawsuits and the threat of litigation had delayed at least seven recent projects in Hollywood, costing the area more than 6,000 jobs.
In one of those Hollywood projects, the developers of a mixed-use retail and residential project won a lawsuit over its building plans, but the owners declared bankruptcy and sold before the ruling. Work has finally begun under new ownership, but another lawsuit has been filed.
In San Francisco, the city’s plan to paint bicycle lanes, one of the main goals of environmentalists, was delayed for four years by a lawsuit filed by a local resident who claimed that the lanes could cause pollution.
And it is not only big projects that are litigation targets. In San Jose, a gas station has been indefinitely prevented from adding another pump because of a lawsuit filed by the owner of a competing gas station across the street.
Republicans and business advocates have sought for years to weaken the law, describing it as one of the most egregious examples of an overregulated economic climate that has driven so much business from the state.
But in the 42 years since Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Environmental Quality Act into law, attacks against the measure have largely failed, a testament to the power of the environmental lobby and to the importance of environmental issues to voters here.
Still, with unemployment in the state still above 10 percent, sentiment may be turning against the law, with Democrats increasingly joining Republicans in trying to change it.