If you wonder about the future of environmental law, keep your eyes on Hugo Salazar, a first year law student at Chapman School of Law.
He’s passionate about land use law even though “it’s not the sexy law you see on Law & Order.” He talks about public parks with the conviction of someone who knows what it’s like to grow up with none. He helped shut down a power plant expansion that would have been perilously close to an elementary school.
And now he is a winner of the prestigious Wally Davis Scholarship, an award given by the Hispanic Bar Association of Orange County to law students who have already demonstrated excellence in community service. Salazar was presented with the award at the association’s 35th annual scholarship fundraiser and installation dinner held this month at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel.
“I was humbled and honored and it makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing by going to law school,” Salazar says.
Humble could be Salazar’s middle name. Despite his accomplishments – as a Coro Fellow he interned for the Caesar Chavez Foundation, and a Fulbright Fellowship took him to Colombia to study the peace process there first hand – he prefers to talk about his older siblings, a sister who is a teacher, and a brother, Salvador Salazar (J.D. ’03), whom he calls “far more impressive.” Salvador is a land use attorney and specialist in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Salazar was 10 when his parents emigrated from Tijuana, Mexico, so he says by comparison with his older siblings his transition to a new life was much easier. But one of the things that struck him in his new country was the presence of public parks, something previously unknown to him. Then as an undergraduate at UC Irvine he fell head over heels for the city’s green belts and the large park at the campus core. He grew to see open space as a basic human need, not a luxury.
“There’s a direct correlation to people’s health and well-being. It makes a difference in the way people feel,” he says.
Salazar took that passion to the next level in his hometown of Chula Vista when a power plant company sought to override city zoning laws so that it could expand its 44-megawatt power plant there. He worked as a community organizer with the Environmental Health Coalition, which he says helped lead to the California Energy Commission’s denial of the request.
That glimpse of the complexities of land use law and the struggle of a poor community to have its voice heard convinced him it was time to head for law school, he says.
“Land use is important. It can make the difference between your kid being sick and your kid not being sick,” he says.