CEQA Roundup: What the CEQA debate is really about

150 150 Justin Ewers

Steinberg’s proposals have drawn a mixed reaction from environmental groups. (Photo: flatworldsedge)

With much of the state turning its attention to the governor’s soon-to-be-announced budget, CEQA relinquished the political spotlight this week—but only temporarily, as negotiations continue over how to improve the state’s 40-year-old environmental law without taking away its vital role in protecting the environment.

Nineteen CEQA bills ultimately emerged from the last week’s committee hearings (out of 28 bills originally introduced), including Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s high-profile reform proposal and a host of other updates supported by environmentalists. Sen. Tom Berryhill’s more comprehensive effort to overhaul the law was decisively defeated.

Much of the focus remains on Steinberg’s proposal, which aims to speed up the CEQA process for infill development. (See our summary of what’s in the bill.) “What are the other games in town when it comes to CEQA,” Steinberg asked after his bill unanimously passed out of committee with the support of business, environmental, and labor groups.

“I think it was noteworthy that we had stakeholders who are usually at great odds on these issues all coming forward to say while there’s more work to do, they want to engage in this process and are okay with the elements of this bill,” Steinberg said. “I think I’m in a good position here to get things done.”

How Steinberg’s doing: The early reviews

As stakeholders returned to the negotiating table this week, the first reviews of Steinberg’s legislation began to appear. Steinberg has said his goal is to find the “elusive middle ground” between the environmental and business advocates who have butted heads for decades over the law.

And while the major players involved in negotiations are staying mum about what they hope to see in the final bill, the initial public response seems to show he’s on the right track. (Though we’ve highlighted three key questions that need to be answered before the bill can enjoy widespread support.)

While some environmental groups have pushed back on Steinberg’s proposals, other environmentalists feel the bill doesn’t go far enough. A handful of conservative newspapers are celebrating Steinberg’s effort, while a few liberal papers have done the same.

Five big city mayors, meanwhile—including San Francisco’s Ed Lee, Sacramento’s Kevin Johnson, and Los Angeles’s Antonio Villaraigosa—have joined forces to support the Steinberg-led reform push.

“It’s time to update CEQA so that it fulfills its original intent rather than be used as a means of delay or obfuscation,” the mayors wrote in a recent op-ed. “There is also great potential when undertaking this modernization to create a statute that incentivizes local governments to do the right thing—especially when it comes to infill development and transportation infrastructure projects in an urban setting.”

Keeping the parts that work

As Steinberg juggles this diverse reform coalition, there seems to be widespread agreement that his approach wisely holds onto the parts of CEQA that work best. In a Capitol Weekly story, Ken Alex, the director of the governor’s Office of Planning and Research, offered the first substantive comments from the administration about its views on the law. (To date, the governor’s comments about CEQA have been largely metaphorical.)

“At its core, CEQA demands that state and local agencies identify the major environmental impact of actions they are proposing to take and either avoid or mitigate those impacts. That’s the part that’s working,” Alex said this week. “Californians take for granted that whenever a government entity makes a decision, it has to think about the environmental consequences, and the public has a right to participate in the process.”

What the debate is really about

Ensuring that vital role isn’t taken away remains the goal of the environmental and labor coalition that has opposed recent efforts to overhaul the law over the last year. The business and housing groups pushing for reform, it’s worth noting, continue to say much the same thing.

Both groups used this week to push out studies that make their case for how best to accomplish this. The CEQA Works coalition highlighted two recent environmental lawsuits that led to the protection of farmland in the Bay Area and pushed cities like Stockton to create plans to address poor air quality.

The reform-minded CEQA Working Group, meanwhile, released a case study featuring a long-delayed affordable housing development in San Francisco’s Lake Merced neighborhood, which a CEQA lawsuit has put on hold since 2011, in spite of the project’s emphasis on transit-oriented development.

Stories of CEQA abuse elsewhere in the state, meanwhile, underscored the reform effort’s high stakes. The city of San Jose was hit with a CEQA suit from an aviation business that lost out on a bid to operate a private airport used by Google execs. A Slate column blamed CEQA for the lack of an infill development boom in Silicon Valley—which the author blames for rising prices that are pushing residents out of their neighborhoods. A leaked settlement agreement in Los Angeles, meanwhile, provides hard evidence of the practice of “greenmailing,” where lawyers use CEQA lawsuits that have little to do with the environment to solicit cash payouts from developers.

How much will lawmakers tackle?

Sen. Steinberg is aiming to thread this needle—to maintain the parts of the law that will continue to allow communities to preserve farmland and improve air quality, while raising the thresholds for lawsuits targeting infill projects that don’t have anything to do with the environment.

In its current form, Steinberg’s bill would eliminate some abuses of the law, but certainly not all of them. Its focus on environmental issues like aesthetics, traffic, and parking, for example, would have little impact on lawsuits like the one aimed at the Google airport or the latest “greenmailing” case in Los Angeles.

Are these issues widespread enough to be worth a legislative solution? Or is Steinberg’s narrower focus appropriate, given the many interests he’s continuing to juggle? That is likely to continue to be a source of debate in the weeks to come. 


Justin Ewers

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