CEQA Roundup: What Steinberg bill does (and doesn’t) do

150 150 Justin Ewers

A new area of focus is the Kings arena. (Photo credit: Lyssah)

After a topsy-turvy few months of debate, Sen. Darrell Steinberg introduced the details this week of his much-anticipated CEQA reform bill—saying he had aimed for “that elusive middle ground between those who support fundamentally undermining the statute and those who support the status quo.”

With this week’s amendments, has Steinberg found that sweet spot?

The Senate leader’s bill—which focuses on speeding up the CEQA process for infill and clean energy projects—includes several far-reaching proposals (taking aesthetics out of the CEQA equation for many urban projects, for example) as well as an array of smaller procedural changes that will streamline the environmental planning process.

In its current form, though, it seems unlikely to end what Steinberg calls the “vexatious” abuse of the law. And without more detail, it may also prevent Steinberg from accomplishing another goal: Fast-tracking a new NBA arena in downtown Sacramento.

Environmentalists seem to approve

With the bill headed to its first committee hearing next week—and with a long legislative tug-of-war still to come—no formal statements have yet been made by the environmental and labor coalition that has opposed overhauling CEQA. Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, told the Sacramento Bee he was still going over the bill’s details, but he said he was “feeling pretty good about where it’s heading.”

“I think there’s actually quite a bit that we can get behind,” Reznik said, citing the bill’s array of procedural fixes, in particular, many of which focus on how lead agencies prepare CEQA’s administrative record. (These changes also appear in an array of other CEQA bills supported by environmental groups.)

Business leaders: ‘Meh’

The reform-minded CEQA Working Group released a lukewarm statement about Steinberg’s proposals. Working Group co-chair Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, described the bill’s amended language as “a step forward.”

But co-chair Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, was less enthusiastic: “We appreciate the effort that has been put into the bill thus far. We still have a long way to go to achieve what can be called meaningful reform.” (Republican lawmakers pushing for more far-reaching reforms, meanwhile, were less impressed.)

What does the bill actually do?

Sen. Steinberg released a statement on Wednesday highlighting four of the bill’s accomplishments:

  • Setting new “thresholds” for environmental impacts like traffic and noise that have become major obstacles to infill development projects. “Projects meeting these thresholds,” a statement from Steinberg said, “would not be subject to lawsuits for those impacts under CEQA.” (In its current form, the bill has avoided actually setting those thresholds, however. More on that below.)
  • Reducing redundant CEQA challenges by limiting the types of lawsuits that can be filed in the late stages of a residential development project. When a project complies with a local plan and environmental impact report, the bill would disallow further litigation based solely on “new information” consisting of “argument, speculation, [or] unsubstantiated opinion” that doesn’t contribute directly to “physical impacts on the environment.”
  • Streamlining CEQA for clean energy projects by establishing a new Renewable Energy Ombudsman in the Office of the Governor “to champion renewable energy projects.”
  • Speeding up the administrative process for CEQA lawsuits through an array of procedural fixes—from allowing lead agencies to respond to CEQA complaints via the Internet to allowing courts to issue partial “remands” of only the sections of an environmental document that don’t comply with the law. The bill also directs the Attorney General to begin reporting to the Legislature “on whether or not CEQA is being abused by vexatious lawsuits.”

The biggest reform proposal: Bumping aesthetics from CEQA

Buried in the bill’s legal language is perhaps its most far-reaching provision: The legislation would remove “aesthetics” from the CEQA equation for residential and transit-oriented developments.

As the bill puts it: “Aesthetic impacts of a residential, mixed-use residential, or employment center project within a priority transit area shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment.”

This would not prohibit a community from including local rules on aesthetics in their design review ordinances. But it would mean infill project opponents could no longer tie a project up in court simply because they don’t like the way it looks—something high-speed rail opponents in Atherton tried recently. This is a substantive change to the law CEQA reformers have wanted for years.

What the bill doesn’t do: Set new “thresholds”

One thing the bill does not do—at least not yet—is actually set new “thresholds of significance” that would allow infill development projects to better mitigate for impacts like noise, traffic, and parking. (Check out this story on how these issues are adding to the cost of urban development.)

When Steinberg first introduced his bill in February, the legislation stated that it was the Legislature’s “intent” to set these thresholds, but a closer look at the language released this week shows those new thresholds have not yet been set. Instead, the bill simply directs the Governor’s Office of Planning & Research to create guidelines for the thresholds by July 2014. Those guidelines would likely be challenged in court, making the timing of their enactment uncertain. (This may explain some business leaders’ tepid response to the bill.)

A new focus: The Kings arena?

While specifics are still lacking on how the bill would streamline some parts of CEQA, Steinberg certainly seems to have a good reason for finding a solution: His district’s proposal to build a new arena for its NBA franchise, the Sacramento Kings.

As soon as his amendments were made public, Steinberg began fielding questions about how his legislation would affect Sacramento’s efforts to build the new downtown arena it needs to avoid losing its Kings franchise. Steinberg told reporters the arena “meets the very definition” of the type of project SB 731 would speed up: “Sometimes there are happy coincidences, and this is one of them,” he added, saying he had forwarded his bill’s language to the NBA.

By streamlining CEQA’s administrative process, Steinberg’s bill may help put the new proposed King arena on the fast-track. But with the city already facing a potential lawsuit over how the arena would address issues like traffic and parking—the very impacts SB 731 sidesteps—Steinberg has not yet produced the legislative slam-dunk he may need to avoid a protracted CEQA lawsuit.

It may prove difficult to set thresholds for these impacts in the legislation itself, but Steinberg could pursue other options that would accerelate their enactment—perhaps by empowering local agencies to set their own standards with proper oversight.

When Steinberg’s bill goes into its first committee hearing next week, it will be worth watching to see if this is a direction lawmakers choose to go.


Justin Ewers

All stories by: Justin Ewers