After serving six years in the state Assembly, Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) was elected last November to the State Senate seat previously held by Tom Haden. Earlier this year, she was named Chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee. Although much of her work in the Assembly centered on social issues, Kuehl did serve on committees concerned with land use and was a director of the California Coastal Conservancy. Before coming to the Legislature, Kuehl was a law professor at Loyola, UCLA and USC law schools. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.
CP&DR: What are your priorities for the Senate Natural Resources Committee this year?
Kuehl: One of the major areas that I see that we're going to be spending quite bit a time on are the NCCPs [Natural Communities Conservation Plans] — the question, really, of how we can treat habitat as a whole instead of having to deal with one species at a time, the fact that there have been no real standards for how to do that. And I think there will be a number of bills that will bring real standards to how these are approved — looking at corridors and migration patterns and how numbers of species are interconnected. And I think also the question of how you are going to embrace giving away some things forever in exchange for others things needs to be addressed.
There are a number of people in the past who have said we don't want any development…. The way the law has been constructed you have to say, almost artificially, there are fairy shrimp here, so don't come near us.
It's not in the state's best interest to deny absolutely everything and therefore we need to develop some protective standards for these tradeoffs, which have been so ad hoc.
The second issue we will deal with will be in regards to forestry. The question of clear cutting will get a hearing. We will be talking about what "sustainable yields" mean and standards for timber harvest plans. It's my hope to develop some long-term strategy for our forests.
CP&DR: Public or private forests?
And I think the third issue will be whatever comes in response to the Supreme Court decision on the Clean Water Act. [Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, No. 99-1178; see CP&DR Legal Digest, February 2001] The question is whether having the regional water quality control boards, having the Coastal Commission jurisdiction, having endangered species review … is sufficient. There are already 3 bills being introduced dealing with pieces of this problem. One of them is that anything that touches a wetland has to go through CEQA. … I know there is a concern about that decision.
CP&DR: Are you concerned about it?
Kuehl: Well I am. Having the Army Corps of Engineers take a look at something gives us a little extra clout in the state. Saying they don't have jurisdiction leaves it totally to the state. We at least have to have something to say about these projects.
CP&DR: Are you suggesting the state has lost some of its leverage?
Kuehl: I am interested in making certain that if any gaps were created by the court decision that we have sufficient law to fill those gaps now — or we need to make certain that we have the ability to permit on all the lands that we think are covered.
And I think a fourth area that will be covered [by the committee] will be the Coastal Commission itself. They are so understaffed. They seem to be able to take a hard look at big projects, but that eats up so much of their staff and time that they have been less likely to scrutinize single-family dwelling projects. And the result, I think, is that a lot of them are permitted. And when you add all of them together they may not be as devoted as they need to be to controlling runoff, and addressing other impacts. When you add hundreds and hundreds of houses in an area, even if they are not very close to each other, I think there is an impact. So I think there will be a discussion, although not necessarily in the form of legislation. It might just be informal discussions about what's needed.
CP&DR: Does the energy crisis change your committee's focus?
Kuehl: Not as much. There's an interplay between this committee and air quality issues and maybe, to a greater extent, water issues. But because there are committees that deal with water and with environmental quality and with energy, we don't really have to.
I think that we will be called upon, in terms of the energy issue, to have an opinion about the acquisition of conservation easements on some of the utility companies' lands. Because if the state decides to help the utility companies avoid bankruptcy, I think it's clear we are unwilling to donate money for that purpose. Rather, we have expressed an interest in acquiring an asset.
Among the assets being discussed are the lands that the utilities own. This last week we talked about whether we would want to acquire conservation easements or actual fee title ownership of the land. … We are asking for the development of information to compare the benefits to the state of a 99-year conservation easement on some of the lands, which would preserve them from development or sale or pollution, we hope, or acquisition of the land outright. There may not be a big difference in price.
CP&DR: Last session, you carried legislation that would have tightened the connection between water availability and land-use planning. Are you still pursuing that?
Kuehl: I'm doing it again. SB221 has the same provisions that SB 1219 had at the end. So I'm starting it up for another two years.
CP&DR: Why is this a priority for you?
Kuehl: I think that people now, perhaps because of the energy crisis, are more and more accepting of the notion of scarcity of resources. Where we used to think there is plenty of water for everything, plenty of electricity, plenty of gas — no matter how much the state grows, no matter how much the demand grows, God will provide.… I think we cannot assume an endless, boundless supply of everything, and that includes water.
We have never asked, when a new development is being prepared, for an assessment of whether adequate water can be provided for new residents and future residents, even though we do ask if there will be adequate sewer and adequate schools. Water has to be taken into account.
CP&DR: Why is there such strong opposition to this concept?
Kuehl: I think the builders were not happy because they thought it would prevent them from making their living. But the truth is, I don't think it will because years ago we instituted the water transfer system in this state, so that if your local water agency cannot provide the needed amount, then the local permitting authority can contract with someone else to supply the water. Or we need to institute a water conservation plan, or a graywater plan, or we need to double pipe so you don't endlessly water your lawn, for example.
The opposition thinks this is meant to be a slow-growth or no-growth tool, but I don't mean in that way. I mean it as a planning tool.
CP&DR: You are a member of the Smart Growth Caucus. How can the Smart Growth Caucus influence decision-making at the Capitol?
Kuehl: It's a lot of people in the first place, and that translates into a lot of votes. And most members are leaders of committees. If you've got the chairs of Local Government, Natural Resources, Water, it has an influence. Especially Local Government, because those are the permitting agencies.
CP&DR: Do you have a definition of "smart growth?"
Kuehl: Smart growth would prefer infill to sprawl, from the point of view of not having to transmit or deliver services in a brand new fashion in a brand new place. It relates enormously to transportation and the feeling that if we continue to rely on an already overloaded transportation system to move us great distances between home and work, there will never be an end to congestion. So smart growth contains principles so that you can plan to have homes close to where you work.
If you're going to build a whole new community off somewhere, let's not have it just be a bunch of houses with no work nearby.
CP&DR: Does that require changes in how local government is financed?
Kuehl: I suppose it will also require us to take another look at the ways we've left for cities to finance themselves. If all they get is sales tax, then we can't blame them for wanting to maximize that income, and that translates to more big box stores and less residential property. So it does cut in the other direction from smart growth,
CP&DR: Do you think we will see legislative changes to CEQA this year?
Kuehl: I haven't seen any large-scale approaches to changing CEQA. But I know there are always bills to unravel CEQA, which would not get a friendly welcome in my committee.
Sen. Kuehl was interviewed by CP&DR Managing Editor Paul Shigley in late February.