CEQA Roundup: A few provisions get applause as governor quietly signs CEQA reform bill

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(photo credit: Enokson)

Updated: Tuesday, October 1, 2013

There was no fanfare, no big press conference, not even a signing statement (though maybe this should have sufficed). In the end, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Sen. Darrell Steinberg's final CEQA reform bill late on a Friday afternoon, a time-honored way to avoid media attention.

The governor left it to a spokesperson to explain his views on a bill that will streamline the CEQA process for a new Sacramento Kings arena, while also making several other changes to how CEQA works for infill developments statewide. “We were pleased to play a part in broadening the impacts of this bill,” said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the governor.

It was an oddly quiet end to the high-profile, legislative roller-coaster ride CEQA reform has been on for the last year, one that started with the Legislature's leading reform champion resigning his post to take a job at Chevron–and ended with Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, after months of searching for a way to achieve a “peace treaty on this issue,” emerging with a small, but tangible political win.

“This bill's changes fuse CEQA with the promotion of smart urban growth, which is a victory for the economy, for the environment, and for California,” Steinberg told reporters on Friday.

How experts view the bill

While his final legislation isn't the comprehensive reform package business leaders were seeking–the CEQA Working Group has grudgingly called it “only very marginal improvement”–Steinberg's final legislation clearly achieves two of the Sacramento lawmaker's underlying objectives: Most prominently, it paves the way for a new $448 million Kings arena to be built before an NBA-imposed 2017 deadline.

But the legislation also represents another step in Steinberg's efforts to integrate the state's regulatory rules into the land-use planning framework he helped establish in SB 375, the 2008 law that requires regions to develop “sustainable communities strategies” that will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There may still be grumbling about how the final CEQA legislation came about (a special deal for a sports team; last-minute negotiations behind closed doors), but since the bill passed earlier this month, some CEQA experts–including land-use attorneys, environmentalists, and infill builders–have found several of its provisions to their liking. (Our analysis of the bill's provisions can be found here.)

Land-use lawyers have described the bill's reforms as “not earth-shattering, but significant nonetheless” and “useful, if limited”–with some pointing out what's not in the bill.

Other observers have been keen to highlight what the bill does accomplish. “We think these changes have the potential to shape California's future in a big way,” Amanda Eaken, deputy director of sustainable communities for the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote last week. “We managed to emerge from this session with the core components of CEQA intact, and with some promising CEQA updates that may just advance our sustainable communities agenda.” (Note: As an organization, NRDC had no position on the final bill.)

Infill developers have cheered the bill's shortened judicial review for green mega-projects, including the Kings arena, which the California Infill Builders Federation has said “epitomizes infill development at its finest.” And there is general approval of provisions that remove aesthetics and parking from the CEQA process in infill areas (though many have noted several important exceptions to these new rules).

“The state is sending us a message”

The loudest applause has been reserved for the bill's proposed changes to the way traffic is measured in infill areas and the legislation's effort to cut back the multiple levels of CEQA review mixed-use infill projects must undergo, even when they already comply with environmentally-sound local plans.

“What I'm telling my staff is, start mapping this stuff. It's clear that the state is sending us a message that CEQA is starting to look a whole lot different in infill and transit priority areas,” Bill Fulton, planning director for the City of San Diego, said this month. “I think we want to take advantage of these changes.”

The key phrase, in many experts' assessments, is “starting to.” While the bill's message may be welcome and some of its provisions on target, its most significant changes won't go into effect immediately. The bill only asks the governor's Office of Planning & Research to explore alternative traffic measurement alternatives, for example–setting a deadline of next summer for the first set of draft guidelines. But it doesn't dictate what those guidelines should include, or guarantee what the new metrics will look like.

The same is true for the bill's provisions to exempt certain types of infill projects from an extra layer of CEQA review–adding an exemption for residential projects to mixed-use development, as well. The final bill not only requires these projects to comply with local plans that have undergone an environmental impact report, it also requires them to be consistent with regions' new “sustainable communities strategies.” Since one region (the San Joaquin Valley) has not yet developed such a plan and two regions (San Diego and the Bay Area) are fighting lawsuits over theirs, these new CEQA exemptions will only be available for projects several years from now.

In spite of these exceptions–and for those closest to the negotiations, a worrying sense of just how much influence labor had over a reform debate that was publicly portrayed as a fight between business and environmentalists–many infill experts believe the law is still an important signal of lawmakers' willingness to change the state's approach to environmentally-sustainable growth.

“I have been an outspoken critic of CEQA for the barriers it puts up to the creation of sustainable cities,” Gabe Metcalf, executive director of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR), said last week. “The [traffic congestion] and specific plan changes in Steinberg's bill are a real step forward for the cities of California, as we try to become more walkable and focus growth around transit. This is the kind of thinking we will need to embrace as a state if we want to make SB 375, and the planning intent behind it, a reality.”

It took a year of heated debate to develop this line of thinking, push it through a maze of stakeholders, and see it signed into law. Making its vision a reality, though–and ensuring the state's environmental regulations ultimately protect the environment–may very well be the future of CEQA reform. 


Justin Ewers

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