With Gov. Jerry Brown characterizing reform of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as “the Lord’s work,” and newspapers around the state calling for an overhaul to the 40-plus year old law, members of the Legislature recently introduced several bills to amend CEQA. CEQA, signed into law in 1970 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, requires public agencies to analyze and mitigate the significant environmental impacts of projects that they propose to carry out or approve. While CEQA has largely achieved its goal of ensuring informed environmental decision-making, the law has also been abused by project opponents to delay and kill development deals.
SB 731, introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), expresses intent to set specific state standards for land use impacts, such as noise, aesthetics, parking and traffic levels of service. Local agencies would still be able to adopt and impose their own, more stringent standards. Projects meeting the applicable thresholds would not be subject to further CEQA review for those topics. The bill also references intended amendments to provide greater certainty for infill development and to streamline the law for renewable energy projects; advanced manufacturing projects; transit, bike and pedestrian projects; and renewable energy transmission projects. As SB 731 is still largely a spot bill, more details will be forthcoming as the measure works its way through the legislative process.
At least in its introduced form, SB 731 is a far more modest proposal than SB 317 introduced last session by Sen. Michael Rubio (D-Bakersfield). SB 317 would have required CEQA documents to identify and rely on applicable environmental laws in evaluating and mitigating environmental documents and would have barred CEQA lawsuits challenging an agency’s reliance on such standards. Prior to his recent announcement that he was resigning from the Legislature, Rubio was expected to lead the CEQA reform effort with the backing of a business coalition known as the CEQA Working Group.
Several other CEQA-related bills were introduced prior to the February 22 legislative deadline. For instance, SB 787 by Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) is a reintroduction of Sen. Rubio’s SB 317. SB 617 by Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) would allow an applicant to request that an agency prepare the record of proceedings concurrently with the preparation of the CEQA document so as to streamline any possible future litigation. However, and contrary to current case law, it would also expand CEQA to require that an environmental document analyze the impacts of the environment on the project rather than simply focus on the impacts of the project on the environment.
Like a box of chocolates, with the legislative process, “you never know what you’re gonna get.” Rex Hime, the president and CEO of the California Business Properties Association, however, expressed guarded optimism with respect to the prospect for CEQA reform, noting that “the stars may finally have aligned on this one.” He cited the involvement of legislative leaders in the effort, the projects and industries affected (including high speed rail and high tech) and the ever-expanding list of meritorious projects that are delayed or prevented from moving forward because of abuses of the CEQA process.
Sedgwick attorneys will continue to monitor closely proposed CEQA reforms.