CEQA Reform: The Year in Review

Three groups review the final bill (also known as Kings Arena bill) that reformed California's landmark, but controversial 1970 environmental law known as CEQA: CA Economic Summit, NRDC and Climate Plan. All credit the author, Sen. Darrell Steinberg.

4 minute read

October 5, 2013, 9:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Gov. Jerry Brown signed this year's Calif. Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) reform bill, SB 743, on Sept. 27, culminating a mysterious and convoluted legislative effort. This was to be the year of significant CEQA reform, with the business community working closely with then-state Senator Michael Rubio. When Rubio suddenly resigned for a job with Chevron, it looked as if CEQA reform left with him. Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg apparently had not gotten the memo.

Steinberg, the author of the contemporary, landmark environmental law, SB 375, that reduces sprawl by targeting greenhouse gas emissions resulting from driving, desired to tie CEQA reform to basic smart growth principles that emphasize infill, transit-oriented development and the sustainable communities strategy that defines SB 375.

Amanda Eakins and Justin Horner of the Natural Resources Defense Council explain that because "some development interests remained opposed, believing that (Steinberg's SB 731) 'didn’t go far enough' in reforming CEQA", Steinberg had to transfer key elements of that bill on Sept. 11 to the Sacramento NBA Kings Arena bill, SB 743, also authored by him. The key CEQA reform measures, principally Level of Service, parking, aesthetic impacts, and CEQA exemptions were inserted into the new bill. Eakins and Horner neatly summarize how changing LOS is key to promoting sustainable, urban development:

Put most plainly, using LOS as the primary mode of analyzing a project’s transportation impacts under CEQA has led to the wrong kind of outcomes. Instead of looking at real environmental impacts, like pollution and noise, LOS instead looks at traffic delay.  And since CEQA sensibly requires projects to mitigate their impacts, LOS has led projects to find ways to make it easier for cars to get around, with more and wider roads, frequently at the expense of transit, biking and walking, and ultimately environmental quality. 

They point to at least one CEQA critic, Gabriel Metcalf, Executive Director, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) who didn't hide his approval of the new bill, particularly the replacement of LOS.

“I have been an outspoken critic of CEQA for the barriers it puts up to the creation of sustainable cities. The LOS and specific plan changes in Steinberg’s bill are a real step forward for the cities of California, as we try to become more walkable and focus growth around transit. This is the kind of thinking we will need to embrace as a state if we want to make SB 375, and the planning intent behind it, a reality.” 

[Another blog by Amanda Eakins that deals with a different aspect of SB 375, 'regionalism', dates back to 2010 and is posted here].

Autumn Bernstein, director of Climate Plan, agrees that changing LOS is "great news for bike lanes, bus rapid transit, and infill projects that are essential strategies for healthier, greener communities", and expounds on what lies ahead.

First, we need a new methodology to replace traffic and LOS.  That new methodology will be developed by the Office of Planning and Research (OPR), and it must “promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the development of multimodal transportation networks, and a diversity of land uses.” But here’s the kicker: OPR must develop a first draft by July 2014.

The business group, California Economic Summit takes a more reserved view on the environmental reforms in the bill, as one would expect, but not the original intent of SB 743. Justin Ewers writes that while it wasn't "the comprehensive reform package business leaders were seeking--the CEQA Working Group has grudgingly called it 'only very marginal improvement'--Steinberg's final legislation clearly achieves two of the Sacramento lawmaker's underlying objectives: Most prominently, it paves the way for a new $448 million Kings arena to be built before an NBA-imposed 2017 deadline."

Land-use lawyers have described the bill's reforms as "not earth-shattering, but significant nonetheless" and "useful, if limited"--with some pointing out what's not in the bill.

However, some planners are smelling what's brewing. Ewers points to Bill Fulton, planning director for the City of San Diego, among others.

"It's clear that the state is sending us a message that CEQA is starting to look a whole lot different in infill and transit priority areas," Bill Fulton said this month. "I think we want to take advantage of these changes."

The business and greater development community had wanted CEQA exemptions to be more widespread. Instead, they are limited to infill projects that "comply with local plans that have undergone an environmental impact report (and are) consistent with regions' new sustainable communities strategies". However, limiting the exemptions to these "transit priority areas" makes the nexus with transit clear, as it does with SB 375 by requiring that it be consistent with the region's Sustainable Communities Strategy.

Per the legislation, a "transit priority area means an area within one-half mile of a major transit stop that is existing or planned, if the planned stop is scheduled to be completed within the planning horizon included in a Transportation Improvement Program adopted pursuant to Section 450.216 or 450.322 of Title 23 of the Code of Federal Regulations."

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