A California Environmental Quality Act amendment that could ease Walmart's entry into new markets appears to be speeding toward approval in the state Legislature.

Assembly Bill 1581 (Torres) would exempt from CEQA review the alteration of a vacant retail structure of up to 120,000 square feet so long as the use is consistent with the applicable general plan and meets certain energy and water efficiency thresholds. The exemption would sunset on January 1, 2014.

Sponsored by the California Retailers Association, the exemption was added to AB 1581 on August 20 and has the support of the usual collection of development and business interests. As introduced last year, the bill originally concerned recycling. In June of this year, it was amended to impose new noticing requirements for CEQA scoping meetings. After the August 20 amendments were added, the bill somewhat surprisingly received bipartisan support in passing the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, 4-2.

Where does Walmart fit in? It's well-known that the big-box retailer is considering smaller boxes. Specifically, it's "Neighborhood Marketplace" format would fit in about 80,000 square feet, or about half to two-thirds the size of the typical Walmart. News reports have said the company hopes to open 200 to 300 such stores in California urban and suburban locations within the next few years. Most of these smaller format Walmarts would fill vacant grocery stores and spaces left behind by Circuit City, Mervyn's and other departed retailers.

Labor unions have made Walmart's life difficult by filing numerous CEQA challenges to new big-box stores. The proposed CEQA exemption would prohibit such challenges when Walmart seeks to retool existing, vacant floor space. Of course, the exemption would apply to anyone, not only Walmart.

The Sierra Club is leading the opposition. It argues the CEQA amendment "would eliminate examinations of cumulative impacts and changed circumstances of the area since first developed."

New CEQA exemptions are always controversial, but this one appears very minor. Why is a change of tenants in an existing retail center subject to environmental review? I'm betting many jurisdictions would not consider this a "project" for CEQA purposes in the first place.

That said, whenever CEQA amendments are introduced during Legislature's final days (the two-year session is scheduled to end Tuesday, August 31), red warning lights are sure to flash.

- Paul Shigley