CEQA Roundup: With time running out, Steinberg doubles down on infill, tries to pull back business

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(photo credit: CECAR)

Sen. Darrell Steinberg used the final policy committee hearing on his much-debated CEQA legislation this week to draw a clear line around the goal of his year-long effort to reform the state’s forty-year-old environmental law—and to try to pull back business leaders who have begun to drift away from negotiations as the legislative session nears an end.

Updating CEQA for infill projects, Steinberg made clear, is in.

As for the rest of the more comprehensive changes to the law sought by the business community—including efforts to rein in what business leaders consider widespread CEQA litigation abuse and to streamline its cumbersome process for projects outside specific infill sites? Those ideas, Steinberg said in surprisingly pointed remarks, are most definitely out

“If there is any expectation—and I know there is a big expectation—that my bill will include the lengthy and ever-changing list that the CEQA coalition seems to want, you’re going to have to find another author, another year, another time, another way to do this,” Steinberg told the Assembly Local Government Committee, before his legislation was approved in a 7-0 vote. “I don’t know whether [an infill fix] represents significant progress to [reformers]. I don’t know that, and I’m frustrated obviously because it’s a moving target.”

“You want to move a mile, we will move a mile,” Steinberg said. “You want to move 100 miles in ways that may not be good, that’s not going to happen with this bill.”

Business leaders in the hearing didn’t provide a clear response to Steinberg’s renewed focus on infill, saying only that the “meaningful” reform they’ve spent the last year pushing for would go much farther. “Infill is one piece of that…But it’s a much bigger issue for California’s economy,” said Rob Lapsley with the California Business Roundtable. “We’re talking about the state as a whole, and it goes far beyond infill.”

Does Steinberg have the support he needs?

While much of the focus following the hearing was on this blunt exchange, it wasn’t clear before the hearing began that the reform coalition would be the sole target of the Senate leader’s frustration.

Steinberg’s CEQA reform effort has always been a delicate dance to try to build consensus among a range of politically powerful stakeholders—a dance that appeared to be tripping him up over the last few weeks. The Assembly speaker has seemed to be backing away from CEQA reform, and a coalition of the public agencies responsible for conducting CEQA reviews have produced a lengthy list of procedural problems with Steinberg’s reforms they believe will lead to more litigation. Closed-door negotiations with labor, environmental, and business groups, meanwhile, are said to be stalled.

While would-be reformers have continued to push for what they call “meaningful” changes to CEQA, sources close to the negotiations have said Steinberg was surprised by the opposition from some labor leaders, in particular, who also pushed back against his legislation’s focus on streamlining CEQA for infill projects. Viewing those same projects as a steady stream of future jobs, labor groups are wary of losing CEQA as a tool they can use to reach project labor agreements with developers.

Steinberg didn’t mention labor in this week’s hearing, and there were signs that he may be making progress on locking up labor support. At least one labor representative offered a full-throated defense of the bill on Wednesday. “I believe Sen. Steinberg has done yeoman’s work to get a compromise on a number of key elements,” said Scott Wetch, who represents a group of electrical workers’ unions. “We’re proudly supporting this bill today in its current form. We think it’s an important step and for this committee and Legislature, and to miss this opportunity to make this advancement would be a tragedy in our eyes.”

Several other key labor groups, including the State Building and Construction Trades Council, also spoke in support of Steinberg, as did environmental groups including the League of Conservation Voters and the Planning and Conservation League—though environmentalists continue to express concern about some of the bill’s details. “We’re willing to keep some skin in the game and move this forward,” said Annie Nothoff of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Where the debate goes from here

Whether these grudging remarks mean Steinberg has locked up the support he needs to get the bill passed remains unclear. In a final effort to woo the business leaders who would give him a major legislative win, Steinberg alluded to one potential new proposal he was offering as a carrot to win their support.

“During the summer recess, we’ve come up with an interesting concept,” Steinberg said during the hearing, sketching out an idea that would build on language in SB 375, the state’s landmark land-use law, and allow cities to adopt new general plans in a way that would exempt future projects consistent with those plans from CEQA. “There’s a lot of detail to be worked out, and even if we get there, I’m not sure it satisfies all the parties,” Steinberg acknowledged. “But you have a Pro Tem of the Senate who’s willing to grind this out and to push everybody to get something more meaningful than what’s in this bill done on infill and to make 375 work.”

Would-be reformers haven’t responded to the specifics of this new proposal, but insiders close to negotiations say this approach, like many of the provisions in Steinberg’s existing bill, are being loaded down with caveats and exceptions that may severely limit their scope. One source says labor and environmental groups are pushing to give regional agencies veto authority over these land-use plans, for example, which could render them toothless.

The reform coalition, for their part, insists they remain open to discussions. “We stand ready and willing to negotiate,” the CEQA Working Group said in a statement on Thursday. “We appreciate the Senator’s effort and take him at his word that he’s willing to engage in serious talks to accomplish meaningful reform.”

Steinberg, meanwhile, seems determined to see this bill through, even if he loses some business support along the way. “There are those who might look at the term infill and think it would only be a narrow bill and not be broad in scope,” says Steinberg. “If the coalition and others want to walk away from this and pursue it another year, I’m going to pursue my bill…My final message is, to all the parties out there: If you want to get something real done, now is the time, there is a pathway.”

Where that pathway leads, a year into the arduous CEQA debate, remains anyone’s guess.


Justin Ewers

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