CEQA Legislative Reform Now Far From Certain

George Skelton, capitol journalist for the LA Times, argues for compromise on Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's SB 731 that weaves a tight line between labor & environmentalists vowing to uphold CEQA and businesses demanding reform.

It is no easy task for Senator Steinberg (D-Sacramento), though he accomplished a somewhat similar feat in 2008 when he got opposing sides to agree to the landmark SB 375: Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act. Reforming California's landmark 1970 environmental law, the Calif. Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), through SB 731 will no doubt require the same Herculean effort.

"If you were a betting person, I'd put the odds at a little less than 50-50," says Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, who's co-chairman of a CEQA reform coalition.

Looks like the odds decreased substantially since our June 7 post, "CEQA Reform Advances in CA Legislature, Likely to Become Law".

Problem is, most labor and environmental lobbies resist any meaningful change. And die-hard CEQA reformers, including Toebben, are aiming for the moon without the political thrust to get there.

Steinberg was no doubt heartened to see his bill receive the endorsement of the Sacramento Bee on Wednesday, August 28, "Steinberg’s CEQA bill is a step in the right direction".

Steinberg says his intent is to bring some partial CEQA relief to the kind of smart growth projects he sought to encourage through a previous law, SB375. (SB 731) would create incentives for infill by eliminating parking and aesthetics as aspects of a project that could be subject to litigation.

While Skelton writes, "Steinberg is focusing primarily on urban 'infill' projects, those that reduce sprawl and shorten long carbon-burning commutes. That has been his crusade for years"; in his letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle on August 22, Steinberg disputes that characterization.

The Chron (sic) says SB731 focuses only on infill. Untrue. More than three-quarters of the reforms apply to all projects - expediting lawsuits, encouraging prompt settlements and allowing courts to let large projects proceed where violations can be fixed.

And if the bill doesn't have enough challenges to overcome, enter a new one courtesy of Gov. Jerry Brown's Office of Planning and Research.  "Nearly 50 activist groups sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday opposing changes proposed by his office to state environmental laws to expedite development projects", writes the LA Times' Patrick McGreevy on August 19.

Finally, in his August 26 column in The Sacramento Bee, "Steinberg's bills show his visions for California", Dan Walters credits the Senate president pro tem for his accomplishments on SB 375 and current work on SB 731 and also SB 1: Sustainable Communities Investment Authority, which Walters characterizes as a "proposal to resurrect redevelopment". However, he questions what he sees as Steinberg's urban infill values, siding here with fellow capitol journalist Skelton, by asking whether those values are "embraced by most other Californians – who may harbor more individualistic concepts of work, housing and transportation."

Full Story: Reform of CEQA requires compromise

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