CEQA Roundup: Debate resets with Jerry Hill appointment

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Senator Hill will take over for Rubio as chair of the Senate Committee. (Photo Credit: Dave

The debate over updating California’s premier environmental law officially moved past last week’s frenzy surrounding Sen. Michael Rubio’s sudden resignation from the Legislature, when lawmakers confirmed the appointment yesterday of Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) to replace Rubio as chair of the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality.

Much was made last fall of Sen. Darrell Steinberg handing the reform-minded Rubio the reins of the committee tasked with sending CEQA-related legislation to the Senate floor. And then much was made again of Steinberg’s decision a few months later to pack the same committee with green Democrats who were expected to prevent Rubio from proposing anything that would weaken the law.

Now, speculation about where Democratic leaders intend to take CEQA will focus on Sen. Hill, a respected former assemblyman known for his moderate views on environmental issues. Steinberg has said he wants to force all sides to “confront” the need for changes to the state’s premier environmental law—something he believes the Silicon Valley Democrat can do.

“[Hill] is well-positioned to appreciate the complexities of this challenge, and well-versed in the false dichotomy that pitches business against the environment,” Steinberg said this week. “California has led, and will continue to lead the nation in smart, environmentally sustainable economic growth.”

One thing business and environmentalists agree on

Environmentalists have been patting themselves on the back this week for convincing the Senate leader to focus his reform efforts on speeding up the CEQA process for infill projects, instead of pushing for Rubio’s more comprehensive proposals.

But as the San Francisco Chronicle notes, the committee appointment reveals at least one thing environmentalists and business can agree on: Everyone likes Jerry Hill.

Business leaders called Hill “a smart and thoughtful choice,” while the Sierra Club’s Kathryn Phillips commended Steinberg on the appointment: “This is one of the most important committees in the legislature and deserves to be led by someone who has a strong environmental record, as does Senator Hill.” The California Labor Federation’s Steve Smith agreed, calling Hill an “excellent choice.”

The reformers reset

While Steinberg’s bill may have reframed the CEQA debate—and the Hill appointment may have all sides singing the same tune—there were the first signs this week of the legislative tug-of-war that’s still to come.

In an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News, two CEQA reformers showed they will continue pushing hard for substantive changes to the law—and perhaps to Steinberg’s bill, which they clearly view as only a starting point.

“While the legislation is in its infancy, and months of tough negotiations are required, this is a very positive first step,” said Carl Guardino, chair of the CEQA Working Group and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, and Mike Kasperzak, a city councilmember and former mayor of Mountain View.

A CEQA joke-off

The CEQA wags were out in force the next day at a CEO summit in San Jose, where a group of Silicon Valley executives joined local and state officials in an impromptu roast of the most cumbersome aspects of the law.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom joked that his experience as mayor of San Francisco (home of a long-delayed city bike plan) showed him you “can be married and divorced with two kids in [the] time it takes to get through CEQA.” Mayor Chuck Reed of San Jose agreed, saying the law has been so abused by those seeking financial gain, it should be renamed the “California Extraction Quantity Act.”

“Even ‘the force’ couldn’t stop CEQA abuse,” added FlashReport’s Jon Fleischman, highlighting a case study showing how CEQA was used at the eleventh hour to stop the expansion of a Lucasfilm studio in Marin.

Rick Cole, the former city manager of Ventura , took a more measured tone in this thoughtful essay on why he believes CEQA must be updated. “There is absolutely no question that the adoption and enforcement of CEQA has produced dramatic improvements in California’s environmental quality,” Cole writes. “[But] the State ‘handbook’ for abiding by the law has grown to 1,000 pages.” He encourages environmentalists to engage with lawmakers and the building industry to update the law:

Circling the wagons around the symbol of CEQA, rather than acknowledging the reality of its misuse, leaves environmental interests on the outside looking in when the deals are cut. We have SB 375 today because key environmental players were willing to work with the Building Industry Association and the League of California Cities. That landmark regional planning legislation may not be perfect from the standpoint of any of the key players who came together to support it—but it is the first breakthrough in two generations for sustainable development in our state.

Labor shows another side

Some local labor leaders, meanwhile, parted ways this week with the state labor groups that have been putting pressure on lawmakers by joining the coalition opposing major changes to CEQA.

“This law has created insurmountable obstacles to economic investment and recovery in our state,” Andy Caldwell, executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, writes in the California Political Review. “How this lesson has been lost on some factions of organized labor, who are currently opposing CEQA reform is beyond me.”

Caldwell has his own reform wish-list: These include proposals—such as eliminating attorney’s fees to make CEQA less of a cottage industry—that aren’t in any of the two-dozen CEQA bills now before the Legislature. Some of Caldwell’s other ideas (including ending what he calls “the limitless appeals” process) do seem to be on the table.

A reminder of what lawmakers aren’t talking about

Arthur F. Coon, a lawyer for the real estate firm Miller Starr Regalia, takes a closer look this week at several other important reform ideas that haven’t yet made their way into Steinberg’s legislation:

In its current form, SB 731 does not address: (1) codification of “CEQA-in-reverse” case law; (2) uniform standards for mitigation; (3) combatting lawsuits that are economically rather than environmentally motivated; and (4) reforming provisions concerning the timing, content, and manner of preparation of the record so as to expedite CEQA litigation.

Some of these issues are addressed in other bills—most notably Sen. Noreen Evans’s SB 617, which includes proposals that would update the law’s record-keeping requirements and resolve legal questions about CEQA’s scope resulting from the Ballona Wetlands case. (More on that here.)

But Coon is right about one glaring omission in this year’s evolving legislative lineup. In more than two dozen bills, lawmakers haven’t addressed one of the biggest complaints environmentalists and business leaders alike have with CEQA—that the law is being abused by everyone from labor unions to gas station owners for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment.

Before he introduced his bill, Steinberg explained his reasoning for avoiding that issue, pointing out that determining a petitioners’ motive is a slippery slope.

As the legislative debate begins again, look for reformers to find a way to climb back up it.

CEQA in the 21st Century — a series of news stories and individual perspectives designed to educate and spark dialogue on CEQA as the California Legislature revisits the role the environmental law will play in the future of our economy.


Justin Ewers

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