Is CEQA Reform Truly on Its Way? If It Is, Should We Be Happy or Worried?

California Forward released this video last November making the case for CEQA reform on transportation issues.

There are nine days left in the legislative session in Sacramento, and there is still no vote scheduled in the Assembly on SB 731, Senator Darrell Steinberg’s efforts to “reform” California’s landmark environmental protection law, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). SB 731 passed the Senate earlier this year.

Followers of the statehouse seem unsure whether the legislation will pass in the last days. Those that believe the effort is doomed point to Steinberg’s recent introduction of legislation that would exempt the construction of a basketball arena in Sacramento from CEQA as proof the Senator doesn’t believe SB 731 will pass. Others note that the Senator is still shopping amendments to 731, something a powerful senior senator wouldn’t do at this stage unless there was a clear endgame.

Further complicating issues, Governor Jerry Brown has hinted he may veto 731 even if it does pass. The governor that once proudly declared he “never met a CEQA exemption he didn’t like,” is worried that if 731 becomes law, stronger legislation won’t pass in future sessions.

So with nine days left for the legislature to make a move, the fate of CEQA reform is unclear. But for environmentalists and other supporters of Livable Streets, the question of whether reform of CEQA is something that should be avoided or applauded remains difficult. Most of the legislation deals with public review and other legal matters. But two significant issues, infill development and the measurement of transportation impacts are major issues to transportation advocates and environmentalists who have been involved in legislative negotiations.

Despite some high-profile examples of CEQA being used to stop or slow environmentally friendly projects, most notably the multi-year delay inflicted on San Francisco’s bike plan, NRDC Senior Attorney David Petit thinks the law “is working well now” but that improvements can be made to encourage more infill development in transit priority zones and encourage greater use of renewable energy.

At the NRDC’s Switchboard, Petit argues that CEQA is a valuable piece of law because it empowers citizens to enforce the law through legal challenges instead of vesting the power in a state agency. Less than 1% of projects that fall under CEQA review are ever brought to court, and most of the time the courts side with the developer over the citizen groups.

While stopping short of saying he supports SB 731, Petit states that portions of NRDC’s position on CEQA reform are included.

SB 731 ClimatePlan PCL and Greenbelt Alliance

Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, is also lukewarm on the legislation. He describes SB 731 as “A moderately good piece of legislation. It has a few things we like, a few things we don’t like.” Specifically, he’s concerned that, as it exists, S.B. 731 does nothing to change the paradigm that transportation impacts are measured on how a project impacts the smooth flow of automobile traffic.

CEQA reform should eliminate auto delay as a significant impact under CEQA, Reznik argues. The reforms should include requiring compliance with the state’s Complete Streets law, improve transit, bicycle and pedestrian accessibility to jobs, education, housing and services, especially for low-income communities and insure that the impacts of projects and development don’t fall disproportionally on communities of lesser means.

Some of Steinberg’s proposed amendments, which might be introduced tomorrow, address these concerns by directing The Office of Planning and Research to prepare new criteria for assessing the significance of transportation impacts that will help the state to achieve its goals within transit priority areas. 

The amendments also state that “New methodologies under the California Environmental Quality Act are needed for evaluating transportation impacts that are better able to promote the state’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and traffic-related air pollution, promoting the development of a multimodal transportation system, and providing clean, efficient access to destinations.”

Even with amendments, the new legislation stops short of addressing the state’s schizophrenia when it comes to transportation planning, creating legal mandates to create a clean transportation system but evaluating plans based on how efficiently automobiles are moved. However, if these amendments move forward, then SB 731 makes another large step in the right direction.

Reznik is also concerned that reducing the limits on infill development can unintentionally lead to more direct and indirect displacement of people in communities of lesser means. Reznik, along with leaders from Climate Plan and the Greenbelt Alliance, wrote to Steinberg last week:

Unchecked, the displacement of residents and neighborhood-serving businesses that can no longer stay in a neighborhood because of escalating rents/property values brought on by new development, can have significant harmful environmental, social, and health equity consequences. We believe these impacts should be fully incorporated into the CEQA framework. “

While there is hardly unanimity either in the environmental advocacy community or among California’s civic leaders that SB 731 is the answer to issues facing CEQA, it appears likely that some sort of reform will pass either in the next 10 days or the next session. Even if it passes and is signed into law, neither of which is guaranteed, it is doubtful that SB 731 is the end of the discussion.