CEQA Roundup: Reform wins unanimously in Senate, what to watch for next

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1972 smog. (Photo Credit: US National Archives)

After months of debate, the state Senate demonstrated overwhelming, bipartisan support for CEQA reform this week, passing—unanimously—Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s bill to streamline the CEQA process for infill development.

“[This bill] has received a lot of attention over the months,” Steinberg said from the Senate floor. “It seeks to find that elusive middle ground between those who believe the statute is irrevocably broken and must be fundamentally changed and those who say ‘Don’t touch it, there’s nothing wrong.'”

The lopsided 39-0 vote followed a parliamentary move by Senate Republicans, who pulled the bill from the consent file—where it would have been bundled together with other non-controversial legislation—so they could speak in praise of it.

“Both the President pro Tem and myself had competing bills a couple weeks ago,” said Republican Sen. Tom Berryhill. “But I rise in support of this bill…I think everybody would agree it’s not sweeping reform. But it’s the nature of this body that we incrementally move things forward, and this bill does that.”

Steinberg acknowledged that his much-discussed legislation, which now moves to the Assembly, still faces its challenges. “This is a work in progress as the combative stakeholders…seek to find common ground,” he said.

Still, there’s no doubt the vote dramatically improved the prospects of a complicated bill Steinberg himself has jokingly referred to as the How to Make No Friends Act. “We go into the Assembly with a lot of momentum,” Steinberg said.

Three things to look for next

The Senate’s surprisingly unanimous support for the legislation—which brought together the house’s base of green Dems and its smaller contingent of business-friendly Republicans—seemed strangely at odds with the still-unsettled debate among environmentalists, labor, and business groups over the best way to improve CEQA.

Those stakeholders lined up behind Steinberg several weeks ago when the bill was heard in committee—but they also expressed significant reservations, with environmental leaders saying they were uncomfortable with some parts of the legislation and business groups continuing to push for more substantive changes.

With the Senate’s unanimous vote, major changes to the legislation’s direction appear unlikely, but several key issues remain as it moves into the Assembly. Three things to watch for in the months ahead:

  • What does infill mean? The bill currently limits its proposals to infill developments, but lawmakers have expressed interest in further defining what “infill” should really mean. A broader definition could widen the scope of Steinberg’s CEQA changes, perhaps moving the developments they apply to farther afield of cities’ urban cores. A narrower definition could limit the bill’s impact.
  • How will standards be set—and will aesthetics get dropped? Steinberg has acknowledged the challenges involved in his proposal to create standardized “thresholds” for common urban environmental issues like noise, parking, and traffic. The bill currently directs the governor’s Office of Planning & Research to develop guidelines for these issues by next summer—but that process is likely to take much longer to resolve. That won’t please business groups (including the developers of the much-discussed Sacramento Kings arena, who won’t be able to take advantage of this part of the legislation while they fend off potential lawsuits).

The bill’s most substantive change, meanwhile, proposes removing “aesthetic” impacts entirely from the CEQA process (though it wouldn’t prohibit communities from including local rules on aesthetics in their design review ordinances). This is a major step Dems may try to scale back.

  • Will the procedural changes stick? Steinberg’s bill aims to speed up both CEQA’s administrative and legal processes: Its proposals range from requiring public agencies to prepare their administrative record as projects go through the approval process—instead of at the end—to letting courts issue partial “remands” of only the sections of an environmental document that don’t comply with the law.

Business groups are wary of adding requirements they think could make CEQA more complicated, however—with some attorneys already arguing that Steinberg’s rules might cause more lawsuits, not less, by creating regular new “causes of action.” Other would-be reformers think the bill’s directives to the courts are too prescriptive; they believe judges should be given more latitude to determine whether “particularly important” projects should proceed while minor CEQA issues are resolved.

The bill’s deliberately middle-of-the-road nature seems to offer few avenues for business interests to dramatically change its direction, but playing defense over these procedural fixes may prove to be worth their attention.


Justin Ewers

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