Darrell Steinberg Puts Meat on CEQA Reform Bones – And It’s Tasty
Back in February Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg proposed a bare-bones framework for reforming the California Environmental Quality Act. SB 731 had to be filed by a legislative deadline, but Steinberg’s office needed more time to hash out the details of a good reform proposal.
He’s done that. Late last week Senator Steinberg provided details of the reform proposal. It’s really, really good stuff. Not only that, it’s generating support from environmental activists who had led the charge against the business coalition’s push for CEQA reform. What that indicates to me is that these are very good ideas that also stand a good chance of becoming law.
Excited? So am I. Here’s the key details of Steinberg’s proposal:
• Setting new “thresholds” for environmental impacts like traffic and noise that have become major obstacles to infill development projects. “Projects meeting these thresholds,” a statement from Steinberg said, “would not be subject to lawsuits for those impacts under CEQA.” (In its current form, the bill has avoided actually setting those thresholds, however. More on that below.)
• Reducing redundant CEQA challenges by limiting the types of lawsuits that can be filed in the late stages of a residential development project. When a project complies with a local plan and environmental impact report, the bill would disallow further litigation based solely on “new information” consisting of “argument, speculation, [or] unsubstantiated opinion” that doesn’t contribute directly to “physical impacts on the environment.”
• Streamlining CEQA for clean energy projects by establishing a new Renewable Energy Ombudsman in the Office of the Governor “to champion renewable energy projects.”
• Speeding up the administrative process for CEQA lawsuits through an array of procedural fixes—from allowing lead agencies to respond to CEQA complaints via the Internet to allowing courts to issue partial “remands” of only the sections of an environmental document that don’t comply with the law. The bill also directs the Attorney General to begin reporting to the Legislature “on whether or not CEQA is being abused by vexatious lawsuits.”
All of these changes make sense, preserving the core values and intent of CEQA while also facilitating projects that are good for the environment and that help reduce carbon emissions. These changes also appear to avoid creating new loopholes. All in all, it looks like the kind of CEQA reform many transit advocates have been hoping to see.
According to Justin Ewers at California Economic Summit, there’s one more piece that is the “biggest reform proposal” – one that warms my heart:
Buried in the bill’s legal language is perhaps its most far-reaching provision: The legislation would remove “aesthetics” from the CEQA equation for residential and transit-oriented developments.
As the bill puts it: “Aesthetic impacts of a residential, mixed-use residential, or employment center project within a priority transit area shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment.”
This would not prohibit a community from including local rules on aesthetics in their design review ordinances. But it would mean infill project opponents could no longer tie a project up in court simply because they don’t like the way it looks — something high-speed rail opponents in Atherton tried recently. This is a substantive change to the law CEQA reformers have wanted for years.
This alone is a hugely important reform, although the main four pieces as described above are also needed. Aesthetics has nothing to do with protecting the environment. It has no place at all in CEQA. Everyone should be united around this particular reform.
Bruce Reznik, one of the leading defenders of CEQA, had good things to say about Steinberg’s proposal:
Planning and Conservation League Executive Director Bruce Reznik said while the CEQA Works coalition he helps head is still going over the details of the bill, he’s “feeling pretty good about where it’s heading” based on what he’s seen so far.
“I think there’s actually quite a bit that we can get behind,” he said.
Reznik was especially complimentary of some of the proposed procedural fixes contained in Steinberg’s bill, saying they could do “a lot to improve things and modernize” the process for developers while maintaining strong environmental protections.
“Those are frankly from our point very important provisions that will actually do a lot to do what developers say they want, which is more efficiencies, make things quicker… without undermining the core principles (of CEQA),” he said.
So that’s a pretty good sign that the coalition of environmentalists and unions could be willing to support these proposals. Business advocates who had been leading the push for CEQA reform also issued statements of cautious optimism, though clearly they wished this would go further:
Carl Guardino, President & CEO, Silicon Valley Leadership Group:
“We support Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and are committed to working through the process he has established for negotiating CEQA reform this year. We perceive the amended language of SB 731 as a step forward in what will inevitably be a long and thorough vetting of the issues and negotiations over final language.”
Gary Toebben, President & CEO, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce:
“We appreciate the Senator’s commitment to enacting meaningful CEQA reform this session that stamps out misuses of the law that are preventing responsible projects from moving forward, often times for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment.”
“We appreciate the effort that has been put into the bill thus far. We still have a long way to go to achieve what can be called meaningful reform.”
While this proposal doesn’t include everything they wanted, it is also a very good proposal that will provide important benefits to businesses. It’s a significant improvement over the current law, which has become broken due to people using CEQA for purposes that actually harm the environment.
It seems to me that Steinberg’s proposal lays the basis for a meaningful CEQA reform that can command the support of environmentalists, unions, and businesses. That in turn should be able to help get it through a legislature with a Democratic supermajority.
There’s a lot in here for high speed rail and transit advocates to like, and we don’t have to pick sides to get it. Let’s hope that Steinberg’s proposals move forward with the broad support they deserve.