CEQA Roundup: Senate leader Steinberg intros CEQA bill hours after Rubio resigns

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Sen. Michael Rubio (D-Bakersfield), who has been a lead in the CEQA reform effort, announced his resignation today.
(Photo Credit: Angel Cardenas)

UPDATE – Friday, February 22, 2013 4:00 p.m.

After a long day of having its thunder stolen by Sen. Rubio’s resignation, a long-awaited CEQA reform measure was finally introduced late this afternoon by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

We’ll take a closer look next week at the specifics of the bill, now called SB 731, which, as expected, includes intent language only and still lacks many specifics.

A few initial observations:

A broad coalition: Steinberg seems to have established détente between environmentalists, business, and labor groups that have been readying themselves for a political showdown over the last several months. In the release describing the bill, Steinberg includes supportive statements from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, and the State Building and Construction Trades Council. “When it comes to dealing with controversial matters, not everybody gets everything they want. I’m gratified that all sides on this issue are willing to work with us to move forward,” Steinberg says. “We need to take advantage of the opportunity to improve and strengthen this great law by making the process more efficient, timely and effective for the kinds of projects we all want to see.” 

No standards approach: Steinberg says his legislation will still aim to “modernize” CEQA in a way that grows the state’s economy, but it appears to leave behind some of the more comprehensive reform ideas contained in Sen. Rubio’s unsuccessful reform bid last summer. Rubio’s bill would have exempted from CEQA many projects that already comply with existing environmental laws. But after environmentalists criticized this approach as too broad, SB 731 seems to narrow its focus to the areas most likely to appeal to all sides—efforts to expand infill development, reduce urban sprawl, and, as Steinberg puts it, “make new investments in clean energy, bike lanes, and transportation projects.”

A focus on speeding up the CEQA process: Many of the details are still lacking about exactly how Steinberg proposes to change CEQA in ways that encourage infill and discourage sprawl. (Though he does say he intends to set “clear minimum thresholds” for impacts like parking, traffic, and aesthetics—which present some of the biggest obstacles to infill development.)

The bill provides more specifics about how lawmakers can speed up the CEQA process to avoid delays. In particular, Steinberg says his bill will:

  • Reduce duplication in Environmental Impact Report filings by expanding the use of “tiering.” This streamlines and limits further paperwork whereby local land use plans that have sufficient detail and recently completed EIRs can be used by people building projects within those plans.
  • Where Environmental Impact Reports have been successfully challenged, allow the courts to send back for repair only the portion of the EIR that is found to be incomplete or lacking required specificity. This would eliminate the need for the entire EIR to be recirculated for public comment which can create additional delays.
  • In those cases where project developers and agencies haven’t made any substantive change to a project and the public has already had time to comment on it, limit or prohibit so-called “late hits” and “document dumps” designed solely to delay projects late in the environmental review process.
  • Appropriate $30 million in new funding to local governments to update their general, area, and specific plans so that they can be better used to “tier” and streamline environmental review of projects built pursuant to those plans.

UPDATE – Friday, February 22, 2013 1:45 p.m.

What are the prospects for CEQA reform now that Sen. Rubio has announced his resignation? The Sacramento Bee’s David Siders asked Gov. Jerry Brown that question: “Well,” the governor responded. “He was certainly the foremost champion.”

UPDATE – Friday, February 22, 2013 12:30 p.m.

The CEQA debate took an unexpected turn this morning, when the likely author of a reform bill, Sen. Michael Rubio, announced his immediate resignation from the Senate, citing family reasons. Rubio said he will be taking a government relations job at Chevron.

Rubio’s resignation is the latest wrinkle in the debate over how to update the state’s premier environmental law. His announcement comes on the same day Democratic leaders said they would be introducing the first details of the bill he was expected to shepherd through the Senate. (Details on what that legislation may look like can be found below.)

Reform advocates, meanwhile, are optimistic they can make progress on updating CEQA this year—even without Rubio.

“Senator Michael Rubio has made a choice for his family’s future and I respect that,” Carl Guardino, co-chair of the CEQA Working Group and president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group said in a statement. Guardino also co-chairs the Economic Summit’s CEQA Action Team, which has pushed for a robust dialogue about CEQA as one of its seven Signature Initiatives.

“Almost everyone agrees that CEQA is a great law that has been abused for primarily non-environmental purposes,” Guardino said. “We’ll miss working with the Senator on this, but we are fortunate that Governor Jerry Brown and state Senate President Pro tem Darrell Steinberg are committed to reform . . . Our statewide coalition will continue to work with them to modernize CEQA.”

More details on where the reform debate stands this week can be found below.

ORIGINAL POST – Friday, February 22, 2013 9:45 a.m.

All eyes have been on Sacramento this week to see if Sen. Michael Rubio, author of last year’s unsuccessful CEQA reform bill, will propose another set of changes to California’s premier environmental law before today’s bill introduction deadline.

Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the Senate President pro Tem, told the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday not to expect a fully-formed bill. “There will be an outline of a bill with detail intent,” Steinberg told the Chronicle editorial board. Steinberg and Rubio have both hinted for the last few weeks that they might take this approach, introducing a “spot bill” that serves as a legislative placeholder lawmakers can add more detail to later in the session.

The two lawmakers have been quiet about their plans. But Steinberg’s remarks seem to indicate ­that the most comprehensive reform option—the so-called “standards approach,” which would exempt from CEQA many projects that already comply with existing environmental laws—may no longer be on the table. As Steinberg said to the Chronicle: “The standards-based approach won’t fly with the Legislature.”

So what might Steinberg introduce? The Chronicle’s Andrew Ross provides a summary:

Steinberg says he is all for other proposed reforms, like streamlining the CEQA process; making it easier for infill projects that adequately address noise, traffic and other environmental issues to get a quicker pass; and prohibiting last-minute legal “document dumps” by project opponents that can stretch court proceedings into eternity.

As for whether Steinberg and Rubio are on the same page when it comes to reform: “We will be by tomorrow,” Steinberg said.

Waiting in the wings, the GOP?

While Democratic lawmakers huddle on one side of the aisle, a few Republicans jumped onto the CEQA stage this week, arguing that “common sense” CEQA reform could offer their party a path back into the limelight. Former state Senator Tom Harman—a onetime member of Republicans for Environmental Protection—argues that with three former governors calling to end abuses to the law (including a Democrat and two Republicans), CEQA reform provides Republicans with an opportunity to join “a truly bipartisan effort.”

The reform sweet spot

While all sides wait to see what Steinberg and Rubio propose, the CEQA Working Group released another case study this week showing how badly the law is being abused: The study highlights the saga of a San Jose gas station owner whose effort to install a second set of pumps was held up by a CEQA suit filed by the owner of a competing station across the street. The suit delayed the project by a year and a half, cost the station’s owner $500,000 in legal fees, and shut down the station for eight months while the case moved through the courts. (The Working Group’s website has a detailed description of how they believe their reform proposals would end this type of abuse.)

The Sacramento Bee’s Dan Morain used another CEQA anecdote—the story of a Tahoe homeowner who filed a CEQA suit to protect his property from traffic created by a proposed development—to illustrate the challenge before lawmakers. “In any overhaul, legislators must walk a line,” Morain wrote: “How to limit lawsuits intended to shake down developers, while protecting legitimate concerns of organizations and citizens who don’t want thoroughfares or factories in their front yards.”

The policy landscape beyond Sacramento

Even if Steinberg seems to be backing away from the “standards” approach, legal experts say there are plenty of opportunities to move forward this year on politically viable CEQA reform. In addition to recent proposals introduced by a coalition of public works agencies and a group of city planners, a few other popular CEQA reform ideas surfaced again this week:

  • Local solutions: Frustrated by the delays and high costs caused by some CEQA suits, some city leaders are looking for ways to streamline CEQA themselves. The Bay Area Council recently endorsed an effort by a San Francisco county supervisor to speed up the CEQA process by preventing last-minute appeals. The legislation would require appeals to be filed with the Board of Supervisors within 15 to 30 days of the first project approval, instead of allowing litigants to jump into the fray at the very end of the planning process.
  • The urban-exemption approach: Even if cities don’t create their own CEQA rules—an approach sure to be challenged in court—some experts have proposed changing the way the law works within city limits to promote more infill development. Stuart Leavenworth of the Sacramento Bee raised this idea last week, one that has the support of some urban planners. Leavenworth’s idea was quickly jumped on by county leaders, who pointed out that many cities have unincorporated areas within them governed by counties. “For this concept to work,” wrote Matt Cate, executive director of the California State Association of Counties, “the criteria for a CEQA waiver should be based on existing population density, not city-county boundaries that may not reflect the true limits of existing development.”
  • Where the GOP wants to start: Bridges and overpasses? GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, rolled out a few CEQA ideas this week they believe would garner bipartisan support. “There is nothing stopping Republicans and Democrats from working together to find reforms to accommodate small business, public health, infrastructure and growing cities,” GOP Assemblymember Melissa Melendez wrote in an op-ed. Melendez proposed CEQA exemptions for projects like hospitals, new bridges, and freeway overpasses—which she called “a great start to growth.”
  • Concentrating on the courts: WhileSteinberg himself seems focused on streamlining the legal language of CEQA, other lawmakers are looking to the courts for answers. Legal experts have complained for years about the confusing and often contradictory rulings handed down by judges in CEQA cases. (One law firm’s helpful summary of recent court rulings on CEQA cases like the Ballona Wetlands can be found here.) To remedy this situation—and to speed up the CEQA process—Sen. Ellen Corbett’s SB 123 would create a new “environmental and land-use division” within the state’s county court system. These new CEQA courts would handle cases involving CEQA or subject areas like air quality, hazardous materials, and climate change to a specialized court manned by “specialized judges.”

Justin Ewers

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