CEQA Roundup: Is reform really on “life support?”

150 150 Justin Ewers

Damaged road in Malibu (Photo Credit: FEMA)

Even from as far away as China, Gov. Jerry Brown managed to stir the pot this week in the already heated debate surrounding California’s environmental rules.

“We’ve got more damn laws than you can think of,” Brown told business leaders in Beijing a few days before announcing a major trade agreement with China. “To the extent [we] have any red tape,” Brown said, “there’s no one more anxious to reduce it.”

Whether the Legislature gives him a chance this year will be decided in only a few weeks, when the Senate’s environmental quality committee holds its long-awaited hearing on CEQA, the subject of a topsy-turvy year of debate. Given the sheer quantity of CEQA legislation now before lawmakers, the committee has scheduled a hearing on May 1 just to consider more than two dozen CEQA bills. The committee will then have until May 10 to decide which bills to send to the Senate floor.

With that deadline looming, the policy landscape appears to be shrinking rapidly, as political pressure is applied to both business-backed reform proposals and the smaller updates proposed by environmental groups. (Check out the Economic Summit’s summary of the major types of CEQA legislation now on the table.)

Comprehensive reform on “life-support?”

An excellent piece this week by the Bay Area News Group’s Steven Harmon details how the momentum behind the comprehensive CEQA reforms proposed last summer by Sen. Michael Rubio (and revived by GOP Sen. Tom Berryhill) seems to have stalled. “The forces have already organized to block it,” Gov. Brown said recently in a nod to the coalition of labor unions and environmental groups that have rallied against changes to the law. (The Economic Summit recently noted the same thing.) As Joel Fox, chairman of the Small Business Action Committee, puts it: “The stars were in line, but have been knocked out of alignment.”

Green CEQA bills also targeted

Two of the highest-profile CEQA bills backed by environmental groups also came under fire this week when the California Chamber of Commerce added them to its annual list of “job-killers.” The Chamber singled out AB 983 (Ammiano) and SB 617 (Evans) for proposing to expand CEQA’s scope by reversing a court decision in the Ballona Wetlands case. The Chamber also doesn’t approve of the bills’ changes to CEQA’s notice-filing and publication requirements, saying they “inappropriately expand CEQA, slowing development and growth in the state.” Opposition from groups like Cal Chamber may not mean the end of the nine CEQA bills backed by environmentalists, but it could make their going a little harder.

What’s left: A compromise?

Still standing is Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s middle-of-the-road approach—in part because his bill, SB 731, continues to contain intent language only and does not yet include statutory changes to the law (a fact that concerns these legal experts). Steinberg’s proposal also does seem to offer a true compromise by focusing on speeding up the CEQA process for infill developments—something both environmentalists and business groups can support.

Reform champion Carl Guardino, co-chair of the CEQA Working Group, believes Steinberg remains committed to reforming the law. “He told me, ‘I’m not going to do this halfway. We won’t do something small,'” Guardino told Steven Harmon. Guardino also says Steinberg continues to maintain he’s not interested in doing something that would be “one-yard gain and a cloud of dust, where everyone claims victory and we’re back fighting a year later.” (This is something the Senate leader has said on previous occasions.)

Steinberg certainly made streamlining California’s environmental rules a central part of his pitch last week to NBA owners deciding whether Sacramento can proceed with plans to build a new Kings arena in a redeveloped site downtown. “I made a presentation on what California has done to streamline the regulations for projects just like this,” Steinberg said in a radio interview.

This includes, he pointed out, “what I’m doing now with my current CEQA bill, SB 731 which would take out of the CEQA process traffic levels of service, noise and aesthetics and allow those to be ‘checked boxes,’ if you will, if the development project meets the city standards on those issues. So we’ve done a lot in this area to streamline and attract these kinds of projects and we’re continuing to do so.”

Is it or isn’t it “the year of reform?”

Even though the political stars don’t seem to be aligned for comprehensive CEQA reform, many experts think Steinberg’s approach still offers a viable path forward for lawmakers interested in making substantive changes this year to the state’s premier environmental law.

“Unions and environmentalists have put together a strong coalition that has put out an increasingly effective message equating changes to CEQA with deregulation and undermining environmental protections,” writes High-Speed Rail Blog’s Robert Cruickshank, a reliable observer of the state’s environmental politics.

But equally strong counterarguments have been made supporting the need for reform—with questions being raised about labor’s motives for defending CEQA and the origins of a recent labor-backed study on the subject.

An interview this week with the City of Oakland’s bicycle and pedestrian facilities manager illustrates how Steinberg’s approach could remove some of the barriers CEQA currently puts in front of infill projects.

As the list of case studies grows demonstrating how CEQA is driving up the cost of urban development and contributing to sprawl, sustainable development advocates continue to insist that reforming the state’s environmental law may be the best way to protect the environment.

“It does appear…that some sort of change to CEQA will be made this session,” says Cruickshank. “That’s good news, since CEQA does need to be changed so that environmentally friendly projects get helped and not hindered by the CEQA process.”

With legislative deadlines fast approaching, that appears to be Steinberg’s goal. It will be worth watching to see if he can form the coalition his bill will need to pass.  


Justin Ewers

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