Jerry Brown may have given up on CEQA reform this year, but Darrell Steinberg has not.
The Senate leader released details of his proposed reform of the California Environmental Quality Act yesterday. It's not sweeping reform. Rather, it contains a series of incremental changes designed to speed projects along. These include statewide significance treshholds on some topics including traffic; some reforms to CEQA litigation procedures; and $30 million in annual funding to the Strategic Growth Council to continue providing statewide planning grants.
The details received a positive response from both CEQA reformers and CEQA defenders. The CEQA Working Group, a business and labor group that has called for major CEQA reform, called the bill "meaningful CEQA reform", while Bruce Reznik of the Planning & Conservation League, which heads the CEQA Works coalition that has defended the law, was quoted as saying: "I think there's actually quite a bit that we can get behind."
News coverage around the state focused on the possibility that the bill will speed construction of a new basketball arena in Sacramento, largely because that's what the Sacramento Bee focused on in its coverage.
Here is what the bill would do as reported by Steinberg's office:
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:
o Allows the lead agency to comply with notices and findings on EIR's through the Internet;
o 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;
o 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;o 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;
o 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