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2013 CEQA Reform: Long Journey with Modest Outcome

SB 743 Heads to Governor with Several Statewide CEQA Implications

September 19, 2013
This year was supposed to be the year for California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) reform but even the best laid plans can go awry and the definition of “reform” viewed differently from party to party.
Initially former Sen. Michael Rubio, a Central Valley Democrat, was leading the effort but things changed when he resigned to take a job in the private sector earlier this year. The focus then shifted to SB 731 (Steinberg) as the vehicle. 
In its early stages SB 731’s contents were mostly intent language. Still, organizations lined up to testify on behalf of the legislation partially because it was the only game in town. By the time the bill reached the Assembly, however, factions emerged with some voicing concerns over whether measure contents would streamline the process or reduce litigation. 
League CEQA Taskforce & Bill Position Formed  
The League formed a CEQA Taskforce in preparation to engage in discussions and negotiations. League President Bill Bogaard appointed members from four different policy committees. The taskforce held meetings to review the bill in detail, and developed recommendations on each provision in the bill. To preserve flexibility, taskforce members recommended the League take a “concern” position with the option to oppose should the League’s concerns go unaddressed.  The taskforce’s recommendation was concurred with by four League policy committees and the League’s Board.
The League met with Senate President Pro Tem Steinberg’s staff, the Planning and Conservation League, a coalition of business interests called the CEQA Working Group, and the Public Works Coalition to gain a broader perspective on the bill. As lead agencies the League believes cities have more expertise and should be seated at the CEQA negotiation table. Along with other members of the Public Works Coalition, the League submitted proposed amendments to SB 731. Rather than reform, amendments sought to ameliorate the concerns lead agencies had with the language in the bill. 
For example, an earlier version of SB 731 would have required lead agencies to post statements of overriding considerations 10 days prior to the approval of a proposed project, triggering another CEQA comment period. The League opposed this provision because of the increased delay, but offered up a 10-day notice that would not trigger a CEQA comment period as an amendment. Provisions such as this caused the League to join other public agency organizations and change its position from “concern” to “oppose unless amended.”
Bill Support Decreases; SB 731 Stalls
Two days before the end of session, SB 731 was scheduled to be heard in the Assembly Local Government Committee. Most of the amendments requested by the League had been accepted at that point, which meant lead agencies wouldn’t be negatively impacted by the bill but wouldn’t benefit as well. Sen. Steinberg had two bills in the committee, SB 731 relating to CEQA reform and SB 743 dealing with CEQA streamlining for the Sacramento Kings Arena. 
By then, prior support for SB 731 had waned and shifted. Opposition to the bill came from the CEQA Working Group, various environmental groups, and the Public Works Coalition. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) also had concerns with the legislation. Ultimately Sen. Steinberg chose to move only SB 743 after agreeing to insert statewide CEQA provisions from SB 731 into SB 743. 
SB 743 Advances to Governor
In addition to assisting the basketball arena, provisions of SB 743 would:
  • Require OPR develop new guidelines on ways to analyze traffic impacts. The measure provides that using Level of Service will not trigger a significant impact on the environment, except where identified in the OPR guidelines. 
  • Require OPR guidelines be applied statewide and not only to transit priority areas. 
  • Expand an existing CEQA exemption for residential projects implementing a specific plan for which an EIR was already prepared to any residential, employment center or mixed use within a transit priority area if it is consistent with the specific plan for which an EIR is prepared and is consistent with the Sustainable Communities Strategy/Alternative Planning Strategy.
With these changes, SB 743 passed the Assembly Floor by a vote of 56-7 and the Senator Floor by a vote of 32—2. The bill is currently on the Governor’s desk awaiting his signature or veto.
As for SB 731, the measure was shelved by Sen. Steinberg and is now considered a two-year bill. In a recent Capitol Public Radio interview Steinberg told reporters he was “pleased with the California Environmental Quality Act changes he pushed through at the end of the year’s session – and he won’t be carrying a broader CEQA overhaul next year.”

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