CEQA Roundup: Deadline looming but no word yet on reform specifics

150 150 Justin Ewers

Only a week remains until the February 22 legislation deadline, an important milestone in this year’s fight over reforming the California Environmental Quality Act.

But while the public relations war outside Sacramento continues—with environmentalists raising the specter of CEQA reforms paving the way to a future of fracking, while business groups keep rolling out cases of the law being abused—Democratic legislators in the capital still aren’t providing any specifics about their plans.

Gov. Brown, meanwhile, kept up his drumbeat for reform at an Oakland housing forum this week, describing CEQA as a “land mine” that blocks or slows down vital redevelopment projects. While the governor called for “some reasonable changes,” he added a note of caution about how hard that could be to accomplish.

“Any time you have a law, it spawns rules, it spawns a culture, it spawns a whole constituency,” Brown said. “Changing it in any dramatic way is difficult; you need the same power equation to undo what it took to do.”

Environmentalists—and now labor—stand in the way

It appears both environmental groups and labor won’t be part of the governor’s equation—further narrowing the chances lawmakers will be able to push through far-reaching reforms this year. A week after several major labor groups joined the broad coalition opposing CEQA reform, the California Labor Federation followed suit, speaking for its 2.1 million members in a resolution defending CEQA.

The announcement drew a predictable response from some corners of the political universe—and again raised the question of why labor is turning up its nose at a reform effort four California governors say could create hundreds of thousands of jobs. (Reformers, of course, insist there’s an easy answer.) 

A rebuke to the ‘no coalition’

The line in the sand drawn by labor and environmentalists drew a rebuke this week from Stuart Leavenworth, the Sacramento Bee’s influential editorial page editor.

“I can understand, to a degree, why environmentalists resist any real compromise,” Leavenworth wrote in an opinion piece. “They feel under siege. Globally they (and we) are losing the battle to reduce greenhouse gases. Locally, they face an expansion of oil industry fracking and continued urban sprawl. Many are fed up with the politics of compromise that they feel leads to such defeats.”

But Leavenworth cautioned that CEQA is a special case: Because the law frustrates not only the building industry, but also a growing number of environmentally-conscious sustainability advocates, Leavenworth believes a major makeover may soon be a political necessity. “CEQA defenders might be right that [Sen. Michael Rubio, author of last year’s reform bill,] is overreaching,” Leavenworth says. “But their failure to acknowledge the law’s abuses almost assures that a Rubio measure, or something like it, will eventually pass.”

The battle to come

Which isn’t to say that this is “the year of CEQA reform,” as some insist. Indeed, one of the defining features of this year’s escalating CEQA showdown is how much it resembles CEQA wars of years past—largely pitting environmentalists against business groups, with labor adding an extra bit of flair.

While the two sides in this debate have pushed out new websites touting their “broad” coalitions, the sustainability community both sides claim to speak for—the transit advocates, the cycling activists, the neighborhood development councils—are, with a few exceptions, missing from either group.

Leavenworth and others have started pushing for a CEQA compromise that would directly appeal to this group—perhaps by replacing the “standards” approach Sen. Rubio proposed last year with a more focused set of changes to the way the law is used inside city limits. This would appeal to environmentalists who think the argument developers are making today about reforming CEQA to improve infill is only a red herring. It would also build on previous legislation that has so far struggled to streamline CEQA.

How will Sacramento’s would-be reformers juggle this mix of political and policy options—and where will they take the CEQA discussion? That conversation will start anew in a little over week, when the debate over CEQA , as it so often does, is likely to begin again. 


Justin Ewers

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