CEQA Roundup: After meeting with governor, Steinberg puts comprehensive CEQA bill on hold

150 150 Justin Ewers

Arena model by Populous

And just like that, after a year of fighting tooth-and-nail to keep his politically complicated CEQA reform package moving forward—a bill he not-so-jokingly referred to as the How to Make No Friends Act—Senate leader Darrell Steinberg last night decided to put aside his statewide CEQA legislation, SB 731, and turn his focus instead to his new bill, SB 743, to streamline the CEQA process for a Sacramento Kings arena.

The turn of events surprised many observers, especially because Steinberg seemed to be working hard this week to line up a coalition of infill builders, smart growth advocates, and labor groups he needed to move SB 731 forward over growing opposition from the business community.

A Wednesday evening meeting between Steinberg and the governor appears to have changed all that. Insiders say the governor pushed the Senate leader to pick one CEQA bill to get behind this legislative session, and Steinberg chose the Kings arena, putting his statewide legislation on hold until next year. Steinberg also reportedly promised to add several provisions requested by the governor.

According to amendments made public earlier this week, the Kings bill would already provide the arena with an expedited 270-day period for judicial review, give the city the power to use eminent domain to claim property for the arena project (even before the arena’s environmental impact report is complete), and create a new, super-compressed timeline for public review that will end disputes not in court, but in non-binding mediation.

Tony Bizjak reported on what the governor would like to see added to the bill in today’s Sacramento Bee:

“Steinberg said he would add a provision at the governor’s request that gives the governor’s Office of Planning and Research the go-ahead to develop a new way of measuring traffic impacts of major projects, based on total 'vehicle miles traveled' rather than intersection congestion. He also said he’s adding a section that reduced the need to do environmental studies for certain commercial mixed-use projects near transit, if those projects are part of a “specific plan area.'”

These provisions would cherry-pick two big parts of Steinberg’s existing statewide reform package—changing the way transportation impacts like traffic congestion are assessed under CEQA, a major obstacle to infill development, and reintroducing the concept of “tiering,” a potentially significant change to CEQA the Senate leader has added and removed from the bill several times over the last month.

While many groups have expressed reservations about including these provisions in a last-minute bill that provides a special CEQA exception for a sports arena—one of the Legislature’s least popular tactics—the provisions requested by the governor may actually be the “sweet spot” Steinberg and others have been looking for. Business groups have pushed for changes to CEQA just like this in the past since they would help projects avoid “duplicative review” (i.e. if a project complies with a specific plan that has already undergone environmental review, that project would not be subject to a new CEQA lawsuit).

Some environmental groups, meanwhile, have been working with the Senate leader to determine what type of local plan should be involved—and how far back those plans’ environmental approval should be allowed to go for new projects to be granted a CEQA exemption.

The details are still being discussed ahead of an Assembly vote this morning, and the amendments may not be made public until after the legislative session ends today. The Summit will track the bill’s progress over the course of the day.


Justin Ewers

All stories by: Justin Ewers