CEQA Reform According to Sen. Steinberg

Senate Leader looks to head off 2014 proposition

by Brian Leubitz

Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg released his CEQA legislation, the newly amended SB 731, yesterday. The changes fall into four general categories:

  1. Statewide standardized environmental thresholds for the environmental impacts of traffic and noise for infill projects.  Projects meeting these thresholds would not be subject to lawsuits for those impacts under CEQA and would not be required to do more for those thresholds in environmental documents unless required by a local government.  Also excludes project aesthetics from CEQA consideration. These aspects of a project impacts are currently common elements for CEQA litigation and typically are most complicated for lead agencies and project proponents to analyze and mitigate.
  2. Better state-level planning to reduce CEQA legal challenges and incentivize smart planning by amending the Government Code Specific Plan section to exclude unsubstantiated opinion for “new information” that would trigger additional revisions to the Environmental Impact Review. Also appropriates $30 million for SB 375 (of 2008) planning grants based on competitive process.This expands the current CEQA exemption for specific planning so that projects undertaken pursuant to that local plan and EIR are not subject to further review or CEQA lawsuits.  Further, local governments typically prioritize investment in smart growth plans.
  3. CEQA streamlining for clean energy projects and formalizes a Renewable Energy Ombudsman position to expedite renewable siting.This would cut red tape on large renewable energy projects and establish a position in the Office of the Governor to champion renewable energy projects within the State Government.
  4. CEQA lawsuit reforms to speed up disposition of legal challenges. Specifically:
    1. Allows the lead agency to comply with notices and findings on EIR’s through the Internet;
    2. Allows the 30-day statute of limitations to bring actions under CEQA to be tolled by mutual agreement of parties in order to facilitate settlements;
    3. Authorizes project proponents to request and pay for concurrent internet-based preparation of the administrative record for all projects to reduce litigation delays, saving months if not a year off project delays;
    4. Allows courts to issue partial remands of environmental documents to reduce re-notice/recirculation/litigation delays where lead agencies have been found to be in violation of the law;
    5. Directs the Attorney General to track lawsuits and report to the Legislature in order to provide lawmakers and the public with accurate information on whether or not CEQA is being abused by vexatious litigants.

Now, Steinberg is being very cautious in order to try to bring about a settlement that preserves most of the good parts of CEQA while still allowing for an expedited review process. He actually built something of a blue ribbon commission (the “CEQA Working Group”) to help create the plan, bringing together interest groups from across the stakeholder spectrum.

While Gov. Brown said that CEQA reform is probably dead for the year, Steinberg seems unwilling to let go quite yet. And for good reason, there have been some brewing rumors that if CEQA reform doesn’t happen soon, there may be a ballot measure to contend with next year. And somehow I’m guessing there won’t be the same kind of consensus building when that one rolls around.