When the Silicon Valley Leadership Group wants to show legislators the flaws of California's 42-year-old environmental quality act (CEQA), the bus halts at Moe's Stop gas station at 33rd and McKee streets in San Jose.

Four years ago, Moe's began a laborious attempt to add three pumps under a canopy on the east side of its property. No big deal, right? Wrong. It took Moe's more than three years and a blizzard of legal and consultant bills before it got permission.

What held it up? A competing gas station across 33rd Street, Andy's BP, filed a lawsuit under CEQA to force an environmental impact report.

And when that did not satisfy Andy's owner, the competition filed a new legal action. The litigation, which is still pending, shows signs of becoming an oily version of Dickens' Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce.

The lesson the Leadership Group hopes to impart? The brave provisions under CEQA for protecting the environment are being perverted by competitors who want to stymie good development in a time of scarce jobs.

Mayor's take

I asked San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a former environmental lawyer, why this particular corner had become the poster child for CEQA abuse. He was typically blunt in response. "I just think it's obviously ridiculous,'' he said.


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"When you have a gas station that wants to add a pump, it's already a gas station," he explained. "You think, how could that possibly be a big deal? It's blatantly an anti-competitive action."

There has been bad blood between Andy's and Moe's before. Several years ago, Andy's accused Moe's of selling gas for under cost. The two stations have quarreled about charges of underground leaks.

When Moe's owner, Amir Shirazi, submitted plans for expanding to the south and erecting four pumps under a big canopy, replacing a single island, the city welcomed the deal. In early 2009, the planning commission and council approved a permit.

Andy's, sometimes known as Gas & Shop, challenged that finding in court and persuaded a judge to order an environmental impact report, with traffic as a key issue. An environmental report in September 2011 concluded it was not a serious impediment.

Rear-guard fight

Even after the council again blessed the project in late 2011 and the pumps went into operation, Andy's has been fighting a rear-guard legal action.

I couldn't reach owner Andy Saberi for comment, but in court papers, Andy's has argued that Moe's expansion has a "significant impact on traffic'' -- and that the city has not adequately examined underground pollution.

"In sum and substance, it can be summed up by saying the city has allowed Mr. Shirazi to compete unfairly,'' Saberi's Petaluma attorney, James Dombroski, told me. "If the Leadership Group is interested in fair and open competition, they should start examining the activity of Mr. Shirazi.''

Shirazi's lawyer, Gary Wesley, told me that Andy's is "doing everything they can'' to string things along. "CEQA is there because nobody ever stands up for the environment,'' Wesley said. "But it can be abused by competitors.''

When I stopped by the other day to gauge the front lines of the battle, Andy's was selling more gas. Cars were lined up on 33rd street to get in. Moe's was comparatively quiet. That reflected the price: Regular was $3.64 at Andy's and $3.79 at Moe's.

Reform proposals

There is, of course, a bigger story here. In Sacramento, there have been attempts to change CEQA so it can be used less often for anti-competitive purposes. It is a tricky business: You don't want to remove all environmental protections for the public.

(If you doubt this point, consider what happened a couple years ago. Stymied in its attempts to process dirtier oil, the Richmond Chevron refinery went about trying quietly to get a bill through Sacramento, which environmentalists beat back).

"Nobody is saying we need to get rid of CEQA,'' said Shiloh Ballard, the vice president of housing and community development for the Leadership Group. "There are places where we want to see good types of development, and it's taking a long time to get through the process.''

For his part, Mayor Reed, favors making it harder to persuade a judge that an environmental impact report is needed -- which almost always delays things. Reed has his own name for CEQA: The California Extraction Quantification Act.''

OK, big words. You still get the idea. Like a bridge troll, someone can use it for less than noble purposes.

Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or sherhold@mercurynews.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/scottherhold.