CEQA Roundup: A win for the Kings and Steinberg. But for CEQA reform?

150 150 Justin Ewers

Updated: Monday, September 16, 2013

In the end, amidst the end-of-session chaos, Sen. Darrell Steinberg found a way to wrap up his year-long pursuit of the “elusive middle ground” on CEQA by getting almost everything he wanted—or at least all he could get.

After abandoning his statewide CEQA reform package only a day before a final vote—and shifting his focus to another bill aimed at streamlining the CEQA process for a new Sacramento Kings arena—the Senate leader pulled off an eleventh-hour high-wire act, balancing the desires of a bewildering array of stakeholders to combine the major proposals from both bills and salvage a political victory in the process.

By marrying three significant reform provisions from his original legislation with his controversial CEQA exemptions for the Kings, Steinberg’s final bill will substantially, if not decisively, change the way the California Environmental Quality Act works.

Both the Assembly (56-15) and Senate (32-5) approved Steinberg’s legislation, which was co-authored by members of the Sacramento-area delegation. The governor, whose office was actively involved in shaping the final deal, is expected to sign the measure.

What’s in the final bill—and is it good for CEQA?

Unlike his previous legislation, Steinberg’s final CEQA bill no longer has something in it for everyone. Environmentalists, in particular, felt their concerns were ignored in the final scramble. “It’s a terrible bill,” the Planning & Conservation League’s Abigail Okrent told the Sacramento Bee, noting the absence of language that would have directed the state to study how issues of “economic displacement” could be added to the CEQA process.

Many groups expressed reservations about putting statewide CEQA changes into a bill with special exemptions for a sports arena—one of the Legislature’s least popular practices. Meanwhile, the business coalition that has been pushing for reform saw some things they approved of in the final bill—but remained concerned about its scope: “Is it a net positive? Perhaps,” said Carl Guardino of the CEQA Working Group. “But it is so limited…and so incremental, this is marginal at best.”

The California Economic Summit, for its part, which has been committed to using our platform to push environmental, business, and labor leaders to find areas they can agree on, views the bill’s passage not as the end, but as the beginning of the state’s conversation about creating jobs and protecting the environment.

“We know finding ways to make CEQA work better is a high priority for community and regional leaders—but only without compromising its vital public involvement or environmental protections,” says Jim Mayer, president and CEO of California Forward, one of the Summit’s partner organizations. “This may be as far as lawmakers could go this year, but it’s not as far as we need to go to develop a public process that resolves our noble, sometimes conflicting efforts to do everything from revitalizing neighborhoods to building housing near jobs and transit without paving over our environment in the process.”

Good for the Kings…

So, what’s in the bill? For the Kings, who must build an arena by 2017 in order to keep the team in Sacramento under a deadline set by the NBA, it’s everything they hoped for: The bill gives the city the power to use eminent domain to claim property for the arena project (even before its environmental impact report is complete), while also creating a new, super-compressed timeline for public review that will end disputes not in court, but in non-binding mediation.

The Kings new owners, whose arena will be a LEED-Gold certified building when it is completed, will also be the beneficiaries of another provision that will apply to major green projects statewide: a new expedited 270-day period for judicial review. This review period replaces a provision of existing law that allowed specially-certified, large green projects to move directly to a Court of Appeals when challenged by CEQA lawsuits. That provision was ruled unconstitutional earlier this year. Several projects, including Apple’s new Cupertino campus and a billion-dollar renewable solar facility in Riverside County, have already been certified for this expedited review.

…and good for urban areas, too?

The final bill also includes three major provisions Steinberg pulled from his original CEQA legislation—as well as its focus on streamlining the CEQA process for infill projects. The legislation zeroes in on helping urban areas grapple with the challenge of traffic, in particular, a nagging issue for infill development, where existing law has made it difficult to build more housing—or bring in more residents—without running afoul of traffic congestion limits.

To address these issues, Steinberg’s bill does the following:

  • Removes some urban impacts from CEQA: The final bill includes one of the most far-reaching features of Steinberg’s previous legislation, removing aesthetics and parking from the CEQA equation for residential and mixed-use developments. These proposals would not prohibit a community from developing their own local rules on these issues, but it would mean infill project opponents could no longer use CEQA to tie a project up in court simply because they don't like the way it looks or how it deals with parking. The provisions come with several important caveats: Aesthetic impacts on historical or cultural resources must still be considered under CEQA. The bill’s provisions also apply only to “transit priority areas”—defined as an area within one-half mile of a major rail or bus stop. Steinberg has said in the past that this definition includes much of urbanized California.
  • Changes the way traffic is measured: While Steinberg spent much of the year exploring the idea of setting new environmental “thresholds” for common urban impacts like noise and traffic, his final bill settles on a different approach. It calls on the governor’s Office of Planning and Research to establish “new methodologies” for determining the transportation impacts in transit priority areas. Specifically, the bill tasks OPR with looking for alternative metrics to the state’s current “levels of service” rules—which requires all projects, from rail lines to bikes plans, to prove they won’t impact local drive times. This system is a major source of frustration for urban planners. Again the provisions come with their exceptions: The bill only asks OPR to explore these 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.
  • Cuts back multiple levels of CEQA review: This provision is probably the biggest surprise in Steinberg’s final CEQA legislation. For months, the Senate leader has been looking for a way to allow developers whose projects comply with local plans that have already undergone environmental review to avoid further CEQA lawsuits. In the final bill, he has found a way to do it, expanding an existing exemption for residential projects to mixed-use projects, as well (again, in “transit priority areas”). As Steinberg pointed out in his release describing the bill, this includes popular walkable neighborhoods like Rockridge in Oakland or Midtown in Sacramento.

    The final bill does require these projects to be consistent with region’s new “sustainable communities strategies”—the land-use plans all of the state’s regions are now required to develop to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, 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 their plans, these new CEQA exemptions will not be readily accessible for many projects. Late in last night’s session, the Assembly voted down a “cleanup” bill that would have made it even harder for projects to qualify for this CEQA exemption. 


Justin Ewers

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