CEQA Roundup: Debate over big changes to CEQA is happening, just not publicly

150 150 Justin Ewers

(Photo Credit: Matthew Grant Anson)

There has been an odd disconnect between the ease with which Sen. Darrell Steinberg's CEQA reform bill is sweeping through the Legislature–sailing through its only committee hearing before passing unanimously out of the Senate–and the still large, unresolved differences among the business interests, environmental groups, and labor unions that are among CEQA's most vocal stakeholders.

This strange incongruity was brought into public view last week during the first Assembly committee hearing on the bill–not because of any new and robust debate among lawmakers on the bill's proposals, but in spite of it.

Steinberg himself has said for months that his bill, which would speed up the CEQA process for infill development, seeks to find “that elusive middle ground between those who support fundamentally undermining the statute and those who support the status quo.” (See our summary here.)

But at last week's hearing before the Assembly's Natural Resources Committee, Steinberg acknowledged something else: That his bill, the result of what he has described as “months of discussion and negotiation with key representatives of the business, environmental, and organized labor communities,” may not actually be the comprehensive CEQA reform package he has been seeking.

“Parallel tracks”

In the hearing, Steinberg acknowledged that CEQA reform is now moving down two “parallel tracks:” His bill's public process through the Legislature, as well as a series of not-at-all-public negotiations between stakeholders about much broader (or at least potentially different) approaches to updating the statute.

Needless to say, the timing of this two-track process irks some lawmakers, who are being asked to vote on legislation that may not at all resemble the final bill. Steinberg had an illuminating exchange last week with the natural resources committee's chair, Asm. Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata):

Steinberg: I appreciate the committee's patience and indulgence as we are pursuing parallel tracks: One is an attempt to move a very good solid piece of legislation forward as it is. At the same time, [we're trying to] convene the stakeholders and use this period of time…to see if we can really come to a good place between the major stakeholders here to allow us to say–and mean it–that we modernized the statute appropriately, we incentivized allowing the kind of projects we want to see more of get built faster and more efficiently, and at the same time we protected one of the great laws in our state, CEQA. And more importantly, we protected the environment

Chesbro [after a few opening remarks]: I'm a little frustrated that most of the parties have chosen not to engage on the bill that's actually before us today–but have this expectation you've made reference to that the bill will take shape somewhere after this policy committee. I just want to remind everybody this is the policy committee with CEQA jurisdiction in the second house. This is the point where shaping it is supposed to be taking place. I have every expectation it will come back here for a hearing on the amendments so we have an opportunity to shape the outcome.

Steinberg: I would expect that and do the same thing if I were sitting in your chair. [Note: Steinberg then went on to promise that any amendments made to the bill would be brought back to the committee for members' input.]

A public CEQA debate

Steinberg, for his part, defended his approach, insisting another round of negotiations is necessary to take advantage of the opportunity for long-lasting reform. He pointed to his successful leadership on SB 375, the state's landmark land-use law, as a template.

“People think that was such a great success,” Steinberg said. “Well, it only was at the end. One year into it, we were at loggerheads because the stakeholders couldn't agree. It took a real push and my direct involvement…to make [that] law a reality. I think the state's better for it, and I intend to apply the same principles to [the CEQA discussion], and see if we can improve the law.”

Steinberg's goal certainly seems laudable: As he has said before, the Senate leader still appears to be trying to make changes to CEQA that, as he puts it, will “put this controversy behind us.” Last week, the Assembly committee seemed to have faith in him, voting 6-1 to approve his bill.

Steinberg's “parallel track” approach may be necessary for the time being, but it shouldn't replace a robust public debate over the final legislation's provisions. While it may be true that complex changes to a complex law demand complex negotiations, business interests and environmentalists aren't the only groups with a stake in CEQA. The public has one, too. That's what the Legislature is for–to ensure these complex debates occur where voters can see them.

Steinberg said last week he hopes this new round of stakeholder negotiations can be resolved in “these weeks” ahead. When they conclude–and when both houses return in August from the summer recess–the policy experts in the Legislature should also have an opportunity to be involved in crafting a solution. And to engage in the robust, public debate about CEQA that has so far been missing in the capitol.


Justin Ewers

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