CEQA Roundup: Rifts among Dems start to show

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CEQA reform — it ain’t dead yet. (Photo: Bob August)

Differing views on how to update California’s premier environmental law caused major rifts within the state Democratic Party this week, with delegates at the state party convention formally distancing the party from Democratic lawmakers’ reform efforts—and the governor casting doubt from China on how much Democratic leaders can expect to accomplish this year.

With the supermajority seemingly at odds with itself, is this the end of CEQA reform? Perhaps not.

While the path toward meaningful changes to updating the state’s more than 40-year-old environmental law certainly continues to narrow, a group of legislative Democrats say there’s still a way forward—a point would-be reformers like Sen. Darrell Steinberg in particular are making in advance of CEQA’s first legislative hearing on May 1.

Dems line up for, against, and indifferent?

Much was made this week of the CEQA resolution approved by delegates at the state Democratic Party convention in Sacramento, who pushed back against the high-profile reform effort supported by Senate leaders and the governor. The party made headlines by declaring it “stand[s] with the labor and environmental community” in opposition to overhauling “the state’s premier planning and environmental protection law.”

A few days later, the governor himself—who reformers have long considered an ally—seemed to pour even more cold water on CEQA’s prospects in remarks to a group of political reporters in China. “Jerry Brown says environmental law overhaul unlikely for now,” said the Sac Bee headline, quoting the governor saying opposition from “some key groups within the Democratic Party” would make it “difficult for the Legislature to move that process forward.”

Steinberg reacts

All this left Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the leading Democrat still pushing for a reform compromise, in a lonely spot. “[I’m] not sure why the governor would say that,” Steinberg told reporters on Tuesday after learning of the Brown’s remarks. Steinberg insisted he was still committed to finding “that elusive middle ground between those who think the statute is perfect and doesn’t need to be fixed and those who think it needs to be dramatically revamped.”

The next day, the Senate leader seemed determined to try to pick up the pieces. He acknowledged that some environmental and labor groups are “nervous” about changing the law, but, he said, “they trust me to tread the middle path.”

That middle path, he maintains, is still a viable option. While several major CEQA bills backed by the environmental community have been tagged as “job killers” by business groups in recent weeks, Steinberg announced that his compromise bill is now supported by two major business groups—the California Chamber of Commerce and California Manufacturing and Technology Association.

“The Legislature is hard at work on CEQA reform,” Steinberg said. “As soon as the governor gets back, I’m going to sit down with him and go over specific provisions of the bill.”

Winning green Dems

How hard will it be for Steinberg to win over green Democrats? While some observers viewed the Democratic Party’s resolution as a decisive push by the party’s liberal base against their leaders making any changes to CEQA, the gap not may be as wide as it seems.

A closer look reveals the party’s language this week on CEQA was relatively innocuous: The resolution does say the party “stands” with labor and environmental groups (who, it’s worth noting, don’t currently have a position on Steinberg’s bill). But in conclusion, the resolution simply affirms the party’s “support and commitment to CEQA’s original intent to ensure public participation and transparency in the planning process in order to protect California’s environment.”

While last summer’s efforts by Sen. Michael Rubio moved away from this central principle—something Steinberg himself acknowledged for the first time this week, saying Rubio’s proposals would have “gutted” the law—there is little in the resolution Sen. Steinberg would disagree with.

Unlike Rubio, Steinberg has shown no interest in taking away what CEQA supporters view as the law’s only hammer: The right of a project’s opponent to file a lawsuit over how it impacts on the environment. Instead, Steinberg’s proposals appear tailor-made to appeal to Democrats. His bill focuses primarily on the obstacles facing environmentally-sustainable infill projects, proposing a set of new “thresholds of significance” that will better define how projects can mitigate for infill issues like noise, aesthetics, parking, and traffic.

Is this “meaningful” reform?

That’s the question posed by a timely article in the California Planning & Development Report, which takes a step back from what’s politically viable to offer a reminder of the three basic approaches to reforming CEQA that have been considered over the last several years.

One, Rubio’s comprehensive standards-approach, which would have exempted many projects from CEQA lawsuits, has been discussed at length by the Economic Summit.

The second, an idea discussed early in the Brown administration, proposed creating “two CEQA’s”—one for urban areas and one for “greenfield” areas, with substantively different procedural rules in place for each. (That idea remains popular with many urban planning experts.)

Steinberg’s SB 731 goes in a third category—”incremental reform”—according to the Planning & Development Report. Their take:

All [of Steinberg’s ideas] would be welcome reforms—especially more consistency in significance thresholds, which CEQA critics have argued in favor of for the last 20 years. But they wouldn’t fundamentally alter the law. CEQA would still be a procedural law, and even the simplifying changes would be implemented in context of a complicated set of procedures. As the debate over implementation of SB 226 has shown, how helpful this is depends a lot on your perspective. If you’re a down-in-the-trenches CEQA practitioner, you probably think anything helps. But if you believe that the complicated procedural nature of CEQA is the fundamental problem, then you probably think these changes don’t amount to much.

Enough for the governor?

The governor has yet to weigh in on Steinberg’s legislation, but his remarks in China certainly seem to indicate a desire for major, lasting changes to CEQA. As Brown put it: “I’ve always said about CEQA, it’s like a vampire. Unless you strike to put a silver stake through it, there’s always a law somewhere that’s brought into the process, and the exemptions are more illusory.”

Steinberg will have a chance over the next few weeks to convince the governor his proposals—which are designed to win the support of both business and environmental leaders—aren’t “illusory.” No matter what bills make it out of committee in a few weeks, Brown himself hinted that he hasn’t ruled out using CEQA reform as a bargaining chip this year. “Okay, you want that?” as Brown put it. “I’m going to add a little reform over here.”

How much reform, exactly? When it comes to CEQA, that question remains elusive. 


Justin Ewers

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