CEQA Roundup: Steinberg bill advances, as does enviro-backed legislation to expand law’s scope

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The field of CEQA bills being considered by state lawmakers—which numbered more than two dozen a few months ago—was dramatically reduced this week, with most bills failing to make it out of committee before this week’s legislative deadline.

As expected, the two bills that propose the most comprehensive changes to the law survived the committee process and will now move to the Senate floor—Sen. Noreen Evans’s environmentally-friendly proposal to broaden CEQA’s scope (SB 617) and Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s business-backed reform bill (SB 731).

Evans’s CEQA expansion: Will it pass?

While Sen. Evans’s bill also offers an array of procedural changes to the law, it has raised the ire of business groups with its proposal to reverse a court decision in the Ballona Wetlands case. (An Assembly bill, AB 953, that also also made it through the committee process offers a similar approach.) The legislation would require developers not only to demonstrate how their projects impact the environment—as CEQA currently requires—it would also mandate that they show how the environment (rising sea levels, for example) would impact their projects.

“The notion that we not address the impacts of the physical environment on a proposed project is irresponsible in the extreme,” Sen. Evans said during a committee hearing about the bill earlier this month, pointing to a decades-old case near Bodega Bay where PG&E once proposed building a nuclear power plant on an active earthquake fault. “Under the law, the board of supervisors can’t take into consideration that there existed an active fault right where the project would be—despite the risks to public health. That’s the reason for this bill.”

(It’s worth noting that the controversy over the plant occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, more than a decade before the passage of CEQA, and after significant local opposition to the proposal, PG&E did not build a power plant in Bodega Bay.)

The California Chamber of Commerce has singled out Evans’s legislation as a “job killer” because of its proposed expansion of CEQA. “A project’s impact on the environment, that is what CEQA is about,” Mira Guertin, a lobbyist for the Chamber, said this month. “The other conversation, that should happen – but it should happen as part of land-use decisions, building codes. It’s a conversation we want to have, but not in CEQA.”

So what are the bill’s chances? It seems to be moving steadily through the Democrat-controlled Senate, and it could find an equally friendly audience in the Assembly. Will the Ballona provision be modified along the way? Would the governor veto it? That’s still anyone’s guess.

As for the Steinberg bill…

The governor made no mention of the Evans legislation in remarks this week at CalChamber, where he publicly threw his support behind Steinberg’s bill—which the Chamber, along with several other state business groups, has endorsed. Gov. Brown called CEQA reform “a heavy lift,” but said he would “work hard to pass it.”

Even with the governor’s support, as we’ve noted recently, Steinberg’s bill, too, faces an uncertain future. Bones of contention remain for environmental groups over how Steinberg proposes to set new “thresholds” for environmental impacts like traffic and noise. (The bill leaves it to the governor’s Office of Planning & Research to set those guidelines—an approach that would likely delay the bill’s implementation for several years.) Labor’s views are unclear, and Steinberg himself, with the budget debate heating up, may have other priorities for the time being.

Steinberg’s CEQA reform effort did win a major endorsement this week from the Los Angeles Times, with the paper’s editorial board offering a blunt, but fair, assessment of his legislation. “Reforming the law…requires striking a delicate balance between preserving [CEQA’s] protections and curbing its unnecessary job-killing costs and delays,” the editorial said.

The paper concludes that Steinberg’s bill, with its focus on infill developments, “might not resolve all the valid complaints about the law, but it moves the state in the right direction.”

The editorial certainly doesn’t pretend the legislation will achieve the long-lasting reform Steinberg has said he seeks—but the paper’s board, at least, seems okay with that:

In striking its balance, Steinberg’s bill leans in the direction of environmental protection rather than rewriting the law to open the construction floodgates, and that’s fine. Builders see this as minor progress, and there may be further emendations to be discussed in the years ahead. But better to err on the side of caution, measure the results of this modest reform and then see what, if anything, needs modification, rather than rush ahead and possibly undermine the law’s environmental protections.

That may not be enough for the law’s would-be reformers—but with the legislative window continuing to narrow, Steinberg’s bill in its current form seems to the best that can be expected this year. 


Justin Ewers

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