CEQA Roundup: With vote coming this week, amendments reveal Steinberg’s scaled-back ambitions

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(photo credit: Edward Stojakovic)

With a week left in the legislative session, Sen. Darrell Steinberg appears to have decided how he plans to settle the year-long debate over updating the California Environmental Quality Act. After a hard-fought effort to bring business, labor, and environmental groups to a compromise on the 40-year-old law—which Steinberg hoped would lead to “a peace treaty on this issue”—the Senate leader has introduced what are likely to be among the final amendments to his reform legislation.

Those amendments, which were made public today, reveal both Steinberg’s scaled-back ambitions for CEQA reform—as well as his pragmatic approach to salvaging a few small victories from his long, ultimately frustrating quest to find what he has called the “elusive middle ground” between the array of powerful stakeholders on the issue.

King for a day

Much of the attention over the last week has focused on Steinberg’s most decisive—and controversial—decision: to carve out a special exemption from the CEQA process for a new Sacramento Kings arena in downtown Sacramento. By gutting an existing bill, SB 743, and introducing entirely new language on Friday before an Assembly vote (52-20 in favor), Steinberg adopted one of Sacramento’s least savory legislative tactics—one lawmakers have used in recent years for several other sports arenas—over a chorus of opposition from outside the capital.

According to amendments made public today, the legislation would provide the arena with an expedited 270-day period for judicial review, give the city the power to use eminent domain to claim property for the arena project (even before the arena’s environmental impact report is complete), and create a new, super-compressed timeline for public review that will end disputes not in court, but in non-binding mediation.

Steinberg’s legislation, which will be up for another vote this week, kicked up a hornet’s nest on editorial boards across the state. The San Jose Mercury News summed up the general mood: “If CEQA reform is needed for Sacramento, why not for the rest of the state?” The question seemed to answer itself, though, when environmental groups also mobilized against the legislation, this time without their labor allies, who announced that they’d reached an agreement with the developer to use union labor on the project.

“Politics is the art of the possible,” George Skelton wrote last week about Steinberg’s CEQA efforts. And without labor’s opposition, a one-off exception to the state’s environmental rules seems likely to pass.

Re-forming statewide reform

Steinberg has faced a more complicated political challenge with SB 731, his effort to streamline the CEQA process for environmentally sustainable infill projects statewide. Over the last several weeks, Steinberg has hoped to hammer out a grand compromise that would bring business interests, which currently oppose the legislation, back to the negotiating table. The carrot: an “interesting concept” Steinberg said he was developing that would allow cities to adopt new general plans in a way that would exempt future projects consistent with those plans from CEQA suits.

The latest amendments to Steinberg’s bill, though, seem to indicate that no grand compromise on CEQA will be reached this year. Instead of offering new exemptions for projects complying with approved plans, the bill now simply declares it is the Legislature’s intent “to avoid duplicative review.”

What the amended bill does do is tie Steinberg’s CEQA reform efforts much more closely to his own SB 375, the 2008 law that has pushed regions to develop environmentally sustainable land-use plans. Steinberg’s CEQA legislation now specifically adopts some of the same expansive language of that law, calling for the state to develop “new methodologies” for gauging transportation impacts, in particular, to “promote the state’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and traffic-related air pollution, [promote] the development of a multimodal transportation system, and [provide] clean, efficient access to destinations.”

What the bill actually charges the governor’s Office of Planning and Research to do, however, isn’t quite so far-reaching. As it has done in previous versions, the bill removes aesthetics and parking from the CEQA process—and in this version, also removes the knotty issue of “auto delay,” as well, a provision of existing law that has caused city bike plans, for example, to be stymied by environmental lawsuits because of their impact on cars.

Will subtle shifts be enough for the governor?

But while Steinberg has spent months searching for the right way to set new thresholds of significance for other common urban environmental impacts—noise, for example—his updated bill subtly shifts away from this approach. In its current version, the bill now directs OPR not to set actual guidelines for these new thresholds, but to “establish criteria for determining the significance” of those impacts, instead.

In practice, this may be good policy, since public agencies, in particular, have expressed concern that it will be difficult to develop one-size-fits-all guidelines for impacts like noise. (What’s noisy in rural Napa County, for example, isn’t likely to make much of an impact in downtown San Francisco.)

But in terms of immediate, on-the-ground impact to the way CEQA works, this new provision will push potential changes far into the future: The bill directs OPR to publish its first draft of its “new criteria” in 2014. More debate—and more lawsuits—are likely to follow.

Even if the current legislation doesn’t go as far as some had hoped, Steinberg does seem to have made an effort to respond to recent criticism of the bill: The current version includes some new ideas environmentalists and social justice groups support (requiring CEQA notices to be translated into other languages, for example, and directing OPR to study the challenges of economic displacement), while also taking out some of the provisions business groups and public agencies thought would lead to more litigation (annual reporting requirements to show how projects are complying with required mitigation measures, in particular).

The question now is: Will it pass? With Steinberg shifting the bill’s focus from comprehensive CEQA reform to a more targeted clean-up of the popular SB 375, he may have found a political path forward. Others think the governor might veto the bill to make room for more expansive CEQA reform effort in the near future.

After a year of drafting, redrafting, and debate, the final vote on Steinberg’s legislation is expected in the Assembly early this week. 


Justin Ewers

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